More than a year has lapsed since 15-month-old Aubrey Kina Marie Littlejohn died on the floor of an unheated single-wide trailer in Cherokee one frigid January night, but it could be several more months before the state conducts a child fatality review required by law in such cases.

Swain County Department of Social Services alerted the state to the suspicious child death the day after Aubrey died in January 2011, but the mandatory case review hasn’t been started yet because of a statewide backlog. The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services formally accepted the case for a child fatality review last April, but the review has not been scheduled yet, according to Lori Watson, a spokesperson for the state agency in Raleigh.

Ideally, a child fatality review can help prevent future tragedies. It is supposed to detect where social safety nets failed and whether there are cracks in the system that need fixing.

In Aubrey’ case, it seems there will be plenty to learn from such a review. Cops, neighbors, family members and social workers all came in contact with Aubrey’s caretaker and noticed red flags, from violent behavior and suspected drug use to poor living conditions and even visual signs of abuse.

The child fatality review is not intended to find fault, nor is it a witch-hunt to hold anyone responsible, Watson said. The state in particular is interested in whether new policies or protocols could have saved the child’s life.

It is a learning exercise that taps the insight of anyone who may have interacted with the child — teachers, daycare workers, pediatricians, friends, family and social workers — to determine what could be done differently in the future.

“They will bring all those people together that had been involved in that child’s life,” Watson said.

By design, the case review isn’t conducted on the heels of a child’s death.

“They try to plan them so they give the community an opportunity to heal and people can come back to the table and take an objective approach to looking at the case,” Watson said.

But, a year and counting is longer than it should be in an ideal world. It could be several more months yet before it is conducted.

Watson said the agency is facing a backlog of its child fatality reviews. Watson cited staff turnover and unfilled positions at the state level as reasons the agency got behind.

The child fatality review will likely determine why social workers had forcibly removed other children from the home where Aubrey was living but allowed Aubrey to stay. Social workers had documented inappropriate use of physical discipline against Aubrey when she was just a year old. In addition to bruises on Aubrey, there were also signs she wasn’t developing like a baby of her age should, but she was not being taken to the doctor for check-ups.

Cops had been to the residence multiple times, according to dispatch records. Neighbors witnessed violent behavior in the yard of the home and noted children fending for themselves.

 

Swain DSS records in baby’s death to remain sealed

Prosecutors in a second-degree murder and felony child abuse case in Swain County have sealed social service records for fear they could compromise the on-going investigation or the ability to prosecute the case.

Prosecutors have told the Swain County Department of Social Services not to release records that would normally be made public surrounding the death of 15-month-old Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn, who died more than a year ago. Ladybird Powell, Aubrey’s great-aunt and caretaker, was charged in connection with her death this month.

Since DSS records are highly personal — often revealing private aspects of family life, emotional state and financial status — they are all confidential.

There is an exception, however, when criminal charges surround a child’s death. In such cases, DSS is supposed to release a summary of the agency’s involvement with the child, describing whether social workers had the child’s well-being on their radar and what steps, if any, were taken to investigate or improve the child’s safety and care.

The district attorney’s office has the authority to block the release of the records if it is deemed a risk to the criminal case, however.

In this case, the prosecutor has done just that, citing the highly unusual circumstances of a separate yet parallel case against two social workers. The workers allegedly falsified records following the child’s death, presumably to conceal whether the agency properly followed up on complaints of abuse and neglect, according to a State Bureau of Investigation probe.

Whether social workers did their job or failed to intervene and protect Aubrey has been a source of heated and emotional controversy. The records, if released, would reveal whether social workers acted on reports of suspected abuse and neglect — assuming the records provide an accurate picture.

But releasing those records that describe DSS involvement in Aubrey’s case could compromise a fair trail in the separate case against the social workers, since their involvement — or lack of involvement — is at the heart of that case.

The release of records would “jeopardize the state’s ongoing investigation” and “jeopardize the state’s ability to prosecute” the case, the district attorney’s office told Swain DSS when blocking the release of the documents.

Swain County commissioners will have to decide in coming weeks whether to pony up $3,000 to $5,000 for an early voting site in Cherokee this election.

The Swain County Board of Elections doesn't have the money in its budget this year to run an early voting site in Cherokee as it did in 2010. The election board decided last week to pass the decision up the chain to county commissioners.

The election board also has given county commissioners the option of funding another early voting site at the West Swain County Fire Department to serve the Alarka, Almond and Nantahala areas.

The cost of running the sites would be between $6,000 and $12,000, said Joan Weeks, director of Swain County's Board of Elections. Right now, the only early voting site would be at the board of elections office in Bryson City.

Board of Elections Chairman James Fisher seemed confident that the commissioners would approve their request and then the board could move forward with election preparations.

"We are going to appear before the county commissioners and get the funding," Fisher said.

All three election board members have declared their support for continuing to operate the early voting site in Cherokee as long as they can line up the funding.

"I am still very hopeful we can make this happen," said board member Mark Tyson. "It would be sad if it didn't."

Tyson wanted the election board to go ahead and vote last week on the additional early voting sites. He made a motion to approve the early voting sites in Cherokee and West Swain pending funding from the county commissioners.

But, the other two election board members felt it was more appropriate to simply ask commissioners first.

"I felt like Mr. Tyson was trying to create a problem," Fisher said. "It would have backed the commissioners in a corner."

Board of Election officials will make their request at the next county commissioners meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 28. And, at least some county commissioners are open to the idea of contributing to the early voting sites.

"I fully support the tribe having a voting precinct," said Commissioner David Monteith. "I think they should have a place to vote."

Commissioner Steve Moon, on the other hand, was more hesitant, saying he wants to discuss the issue with the other commissioners before deciding whether the $6,000 to $12,000 investment is worth it.

"That's a lot of money," Moon said. "That is not something we need to rush into."

County Commissioner Donnie Dixon agreed that the board must meet to talk about the issue collectively but was more optimistic that it might vote in favor of funding the sites.

"That is very possible," said Commissioner Dixon.

After addressing the county commissioners, election officials are planning to meet with tribal council leaders to update them on the issue.

Cherokee leaders have indicated that they would like the early voting site to operate again this election year and are willing to offer the county Internet services and a building on the reservation free of charge.

The request for an early voting site in West Swain came up for the first time this year.

Former elections board member John Herrin filed a formal request with the Board of Elections for a site located at the West Swain County Fire Department in Almond. The location would offer residents near the Nantahala Gorge and Alarka a closer place to vote. Currently, residents must drive into Bryson City — a 20- to 30-minute trip — in order to cast their ballot early.

"It is my intent in requesting this that it will inherently make the 'Right to Vote' much easier for the registered voters of Swain County," wrote Herrin in his request. "This would as well relieve some of the workload on the Election Day for very possibly the whole county."

 

Which costs more, time or money?

When the Swain County Board of Elections first offered an early voting site in Cherokee in 2010, the turnout was poor, with only 226 people taking advantage of the new location. Board of election members said the site may just need more time to gain a following but also questioned whether the county can afford to spend thousands of dollars on a previously underused early voting site. The board spent about $3,500 to run the site in 2010.

Without the additional location, Cherokee residents will again have to drive to the Swain County election office in Bryson City if they want to vote early — a more than 20-minute trek. And, for those living in the far reaches of Cherokee's Big Cove community, the trip is more like 30 to 40 minutes.

However, Cherokee residents aren't the only ones in Swain County who face a long haul into Bryson City to take advantage of early voting. People in Alarka and Nantahala have similar distances to drive. Residents of that area travel about 21 miles, or about 30 minutes, to cast early ballots.

Residents of western Swain County have indicated that they would like an early voting site as well. But, a formal request for an additional location was not submit to the Board of Elections until this year.

Swain County’s Board of Elections will decide this month whether it is worth several thousand dollars to operate an early voting site in Cherokee again this election year.

The three-member election board all agreed the county might not be able to afford an early voting site in Cherokee this year. However, they disagree on whether low turnout at the site during the 2010 election should be a factor in the decision.

“(Money) is really the only factor,” said Mark Tyson, a member of the three-person board and a Democrat. “I am really hoping that we are able to provide the voting site in Cherokee.”

The board of elections currently doesn’t have the money in its budget to cover the cost of an early voting site in Cherokee, but intend to ask county commissioners for an additional appropriation.

Without the additional location, Cherokee residents will again have to drive to the board of elections office in Bryson City if they want to vote early — a more than 20-minute trek. And, for those living in the far reaches of Cherokee’s Big Cove community, the trip is more like 30 to 40 minutes.

“That is a heck of a drive,” Tyson said.

Election board member Bill Dills said he is in favor of keeping the location in Cherokee as long as it is worth the cost.

“To me, the function of the Board of Elections … is to provide people the opportunity to vote, the way they want to,” he said. “What I want to see is how we can work with those people and get them to take advantage of early vote.”

The board spent about $3,500 to run the site in 2010 and only 226 people used it to vote during that election.

“When you break that down cost wise, it’s not efficient,” said Joan Weeks, director of Swain County’s Board of Elections.

Board of Elections chairman James Fisher echoed a similar sentiment, adding that there is no way to know what the turnout will be this time around.

“We are not against having (early voting) on the reservation or anywhere,” he said. But, “it’s not worthwhile if it’s not used.”

The 2010 election was the first time an early voting site was offered in Cherokee and may need more time to catch on.

Tyson and Dills said they believe more voters will turn out at the early voting site in Cherokee if it is offered again this election.

“Because it was new, a lot of people didn’t know it was there,” Tyson said, adding that the 2010 election did not include a presidential race.

States often see a spike in voter turnout during presidential election years such as this year.

“I think we would see a larger turnout from there,” Tyson said.

However, Dills said that the board did everything it could, including talking to tribal leaders and posting a notice in the tribe’s newspaper, to inform voters about the new site.

“I don’t know what else you could do to make people aware,” Dills said, adding that “a large number” still drove to Bryson City to cast their ballots early.

The cost of holding an election comes from county coffers, namely property taxes. Residents on the Cherokee reservation don’t pay property taxes in Swain County, however, so they don’t directly contributing to the expense.

But the economic benefit — from jobs to tourism — that Swain reaps from the tribe and its massive casino operation far outpaces the about $3,500 outlay the county would pay to staff an early voting site.

The election board plans to meet with Larry Blythe, vice chief for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, to ensure that the tribe indeed even wants the early voting site. In 2010, the tribe worked with the election board to provide a suitable site.

Not having a site would “put people at disadvantage,” said Principal Chief Michell Hicks.

Tribal Council member Perry Shell said that the purpose of the Board of Elections is to make it as convenient as possible to vote.

“I think it’s important that people have every opportunity to vote,” said Shell, who represents Big Cove.

Board members emphasized that discussions about this year’s early voting sites have just begun. The county has until March 1 to submit its list of early voting sites to the state. Early voting for the primary begins April 19 and ends May 5.

“We just opened initial conversations about it,” Fisher said. “A whole bunch of this scuttlebutt is much ado about nothing.”

The board decided to place a voting site in Cherokee prior to the 2010 election after an elderly Swain County resident and member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians made a formal written request.

Early voting has grown steadily in popularity after the state passed a new law in 1990s mandating that the convenient ballot casting be made available to the masses. Before then, it was only an option for the elderly, disabled or those with a qualified excuse that prevented them from getting to the polls on actual Election Day.

 

Going the distance

Of course, Cherokee residents aren’t the only ones in Swain County who face a long haul into Bryson City to take advantage of early voting. People in Alarka and Nantahala have similar distances to drive.

Fisher said he would like to have early voting locations everywhere, but with everybody tightening their budgets it would not be feasible.

John Herrin, a former member of the Swain election board, pointed out that Cherokee is a population center, whereas residents in other parts of the county, despite being a good distance from Bryson City, are more dispersed.

“You have quite a few registered voters in that area,” said Herrin, who helped set up the early voting site in Cherokee in 2010.

Cherokee residents are less likely to come into Bryson City in the regular course of their lives, while residents from rural reaches of the county usually eventually venture to town for groceries or other business.

Although the board has heard that other residents would like additional early voting sites throughout the county, none have made a formal appeal. A community member must make a written request, and the board must vote unanimously to approve a new location.

In addition to deciding whether to keep the Cherokee early voting site, the board is also expected to receive a request for another site near Nantahala. Residents of that area travel about 21 miles, or about 30 minutes, to cast early ballots in Bryson.

Fisher pointed out that people can mail in their ballots.

The decision to add an early voting site is “based on need and funding,” he said. “If (closing the site) would completely inhibit somebody from voting, I would fund it myself.”

The reservation lies partly in both Jackson and Swain counties. Jackson County operates an early voting site in Cherokee for those who live on the Jackson-side of the reservation near the Bingo Hall at a cost of anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 depending on the hours and amount of staffing required.

 

Decision pending

The Swain Board of Elections’ next meeting is at 3:30 p.m. Feb. 15 at the Board of Elections building off U.S. 19.

 

County-by-county

All counties in North Carolina are required to operate at least one early voting site, the result of a new law passed in the late 1990s aimed at making voting easier and more accessible

Most counties offered just one early voting site initially, but as early voting took off and grew in popularity, some counties have added a second or even third early voting site in response to demand. The cost ranges between $2,000 and $5,000 per site for each county.

Here’s what some counties are doing.

Swain

Swain’s main early voting site is in Bryson City. In 2010, it added a second early voting site in Cherokee at the Birdtown Community Center but is contemplating whether to do so again this year.

Macon

Macon County has a single early voting site in Franklin. However, election officials are considering adding a site in the Highlands area this year.

Haywood

Haywood’s main early voting site is in Waynesville, with a second site in Canton every two years during state and federal elections.

Jackson

Jackson County has a main early voting site in Sylva but has also run sites in Cullowhee, Cashiers, Scotts Creek and Cherokee. It has not decided where or how many sites it will open this year.

Caron Swayney knew better than to torture herself, but still she occasionally found herself drawn to the trailer park where the cold, limp body of her 15-month-old niece was discovered dead in the middle of the night last January.

“I would go down there and just sit in the driveway and just look at that trailer and cry,” Swayney said. “It just seems like it is never going to end.”

The year since the death of Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn has been trying and emotional for her extended Cherokee family. When Swayney participated in a ceremonial sweat lodge at the start of the new year, she had one wish.

“I asked everyone to pray for the family that this year would start off better than what it did last year and that we would get the answers we had been waiting for for a year,” said Swayney, Aubrey’s great-aunt. “We kept wondering when something was going to happen.”

Last week, something finally did.

Ladybird Powell, who was caring for Aubrey at the time of her death, was arrested on numerous charges last Friday in connection with Aubrey’s death, including second-degree murder and felony child abuse. Powell is being held on $1 million bond.

“This has been one of the hardest cases that we have had to investigate, primarily because of the age of the child. As a parent, it is hard to imagine any child being taken away at such an early age,” Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran said in a statement.

An autopsy revealed numerous recent bruises on Aubrey’s body and past evidence of a fracture. It found the nature of Aubrey’s death was consistent with hypothermia but could not conclusively determine that it was indeed the cause of death.

Family members say Ladybird’s trailer did not have heat. When Aubrey’s lifeless body was brought into the emergency room the night of her death, her core body temperature was a low 84 degrees, and she was dressed in only a T-shirt and dirty diaper.

Witnesses have said Aubrey was not properly cared for by Ladybird and that on the day of her death she had been strapped in a car seat for 12 hours and hardly fed.

Aubrey’s mother, Jasmine Littlejohn, had asked Ladybird to care for Aubrey temporarily while Jasmine served time in jail. When Jasmine got out of jail and tried to get her daughter back, Powell refused unless Jasmine paid her several thousand dollars, according to family.

Kidnapping and extortion are among the charges filed against Powell. She also faces drug charges, including possession of methamphetamines, for drugs and paraphernalia confiscated from the trailer the night of Aubrey’s death.

The family was relieved to get word of the charges last week, particularly Aubrey’s mother, Jasmine.

“She knows it won’t bring Aubrey back, but like everybody else, she wants the people held responsible for her child’s death,” said Henrietta Littlejohn, Aubrey’s grandmother.

Cochran said that while it has taken a year to build the case, it has been a top priority of the sheriff’s department.

“There has been a great expression of concern from Aubrey’s family members, and we want everyone in Swain County to know that we have never stopped working on this case,” Cochran said, crediting the work of Detective Carolyn Posey in particular.

The family knows the charges are just the first step, however, in what could be a difficult and protracted court battle, one that will mean reliving baby Aubrey’s death over and over. Henrietta is trying to brace her daughter, Jasmine, for what’s to come.

“It could get nasty, and it could get ugly, so she is going to have to prepare herself. We all are,” said Henrietta Littlejohn.

David Wijewickrama, an attorney who has been acting as an advocate for Aubrey’s family in seeking justice, said he was pleased by the charges.

“I want to applaud the district attorney’s office for pursuing the case with diligence and not letting it slip through the cracks,” Wijewickrama said.

 

Charges expected this week in social service’s alleged cover-up

While the caretaker of 15-month-old Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn has been charged in connection with her death last year, the case is not exactly closed.

Still pending is whether Swain County social workers will face charges for an alleged cover-up following the baby’s death. The State Bureau of Investigation conducted a 10-month probe into whether social workers falsified records in an attempt to cover up potential negligence on their part.

Aubrey’s family say they warned social workers numerous times that Aubrey was not safe in the home of Ladybird Powell. Social workers even removed other children from the home but left Aubrey there.

Charges stemming from the SBI investigation into the Department of Social Services are expected this week. See www.smokymountainnews.com for updates in the case.

Swain County’s Tourism Development Authority will appeal to county officials for a 1 percent increase in the room tax rate.

The tax on overnight lodging currently stands at 3 percent. The proposed increase would bring in at least an additional $100,000 annually to support tourism initiatives.

Monica Brown, chair of Swain County’s Tourism Development Authority board, said the idea came from business owners who approached her about raising the tax. The extra money could help fund special projects without burdening local residents.

“Basically, there is a lot of capital stuff we would like to help the county with,” Brown said. “It would give us more funding to work.”

Such projects could include helping the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad construct an engine turntable or Bryson City restore the historic courthouse for a visitors center and museum. The extra funds could be used toward beautification efforts and signage near the Nantahala Gorge, the site of the 2013 World Freestyle Kayaking Championships expected to bring thousands of visitors to the county.

“(The tax is) more for promotion of tourism in Swain County overall and a main part of that is the appearance,” Brown said.

The county can currently use up to 30 percent of its current room tax collections on capital projects, including the Christmas lights featured throughout downtown Bryson City.

A 3 percent tax is already tacked on to a visitor’s room rate. If someone pays $100 to stay the night in a Swain County hotel or inn, he or she will pay an additional $3, not counting sales tax, to occupy the room. If the increase is approved, that visitor will pay an extra $1 — for a total of $4 — each night.

Brown said the authority wanted to be “conservative” so it will only seek a 1 percent jump in room tax, although state law allows a room tax of up to 6 percent.

Jackson County has recently proposed increasing its room tax to the full 6 percent. More than half the counties in the state already levy a room tax of more than 3 percent, with a definitive trend in recent years among counties to increase the rate.

The Swain County tourism agency is “Right in line with what we are doing across the state,” Brown said. “And, an increase in the room tax is not going to impact the number of visitors to your area.”

The tourism authority has raked in between $300,000 and $353,000 a year in room tax revenue since at least 2006. Swain is one of the few counties that has escaped a downturn in its room tax collections as a result of the recession.

“We have enjoyed pretty steady room tax numbers in Swain County,” Brown said.

The tax has remained at 3 percent since its inception in the 1980s.

The extra 1 percent would be kept separate from the other 3 percent, which funds mostly marketing and promotions, said Karen Wilmot, secretary of the TDA board and executive director of the Chamber of Commerce.

The Tourism Development Authority splits its advertising dollars between print and online media. About 70 percent of the advertising budget funds traditional print ads, while the remaining 30 percent targets Internet users. Like other Western North Carolina tourism agencies, Swain County’s TDA focuses its efforts in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Tennessee.

“We tend to take a really conservative approach to our advertising,” Brown said. “We try to do a lot with a little bit of money.”

The key to obtaining support for the 1 percent increase will be reminding residents of how the Chamber of Commerce and tourism authority has used the room tax to benefit the county, Brown said.

“I want everyone to understand the focus of the tax,” Brown said. “How it benefits the community as a whole.”

But, in order to obtain the increase, the agency must appeal to local government officials and its constituents for support.

“I honestly don’t know” when the measure could be put to a vote of county commissioners, Brown said.

The tourism agency will need to  discuss the possible increase with the county commissioners and then with its lodging owners before even thinking about the vote.

It’s a “lengthy procedure,” Brown said.

 

Mixed reviews

The idea of an increase received mix reactions from lodging owners in the county who had not heard about the possible change.

“I would not be wanting to add any more to my guest’s room fee than I need to,” said Ed Ciociola, owner of Calhoun House Inn & Suites. But, if it helps advance tourism in the county, he said he would approve of the rise.

A handful of inn, motel and hotel owners vehemently disapproved of the plan, however.

“I am definitely not in favor of any new taxes,” said Blain Slobe, owner of Two Rivers Lodge. “I don’t see raising the tax 1 percent as helping tourism at all.”

If people are spending more money each day on their room bills, they will cut down on the number of days they spend in Swain County, he said.

Several cited the still slow-growing economy as a crucial reason for forgoing the increase.

“I think 3 percent is high enough,” said Mercedith Bacon of West Oak Bed & Breakfast & Cabins.

Bacon said that the tourism agency does an adequate job with the resources it already has and that businesses are still fragile following the recession.

“I just don’t think this is the time,” Bacon said.

A couple of business owners said they would like to hear more information before deciding whether to oppose or support a 4 percent tax rate.

“I don’t think I can say yay or nay,” said Mort White, owner of Hemlock Inn.

Brown was not surprised by people’s responses when they initially heard about the potential increase and said she thinks the majority of business owners will eventually favor the move.

“I think there is almost a knee-jerk reaction” to oppose the tax, Brown said. “I think we just have to let them know what it’s going towards.”

 

By the numbers: Current tax rates

• 3 percent: Swain, Clay, Graham, Macon, Mitchell, Yancey

• 4 percent: Haywood, Buncombe, Transylvania, Cherokee

• 5 percent: Henderson, Madison, McDowell

• 6 percent: town of Franklin, Watauga

*Jackson County has proposed an increase to 6 percent.

 

Collection rate for Swain

• 2006-2007    $305,352  

• 2007-2008    $320,820  

• 2008-2009    $309,802  

• 2009-2010    $335,353  

• 2010-2011    $352,437

 

Share your opinion

The Swain Tourism Development Authority board meets at noon on the last Wednesday of each month at the Chamber of Commerce. This month, however, it will be held Jan. 18.

Swain County has now been targeted as part of a regional effort to drum up financial support for the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad’s steam engine dreams.

Dillsboro officials are leading the charge, already courting Jackson County to make loans or grants for the railroad, and is now asking Swain County to participate as well.

Two members of the Dillsboro town board, David Gates and Tim Parris, addressed the Swain County commissioners last week to discuss the possibility of joining forces to either loan money or pony up cash to help the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad expand its operations.

Specifically, the tourist railroad wants to transport a 1913 Swedish steam engine from Maine to Western North Carolina and build two engine turntables necessary for its operation.

“It would probably be one of only ones in America,” Gates said. The railway has applied to Jackson County for a loan, a grant or both to help make the project a reality.

Steam engines are a rarity, and their antiquity is enough to draw new visitors to the railway.

“This could change Western North Carolina,” Gates said. “It could be probably the second largest tourist attraction outside Biltmore.”

In order for the project to work, the railroad would need a turntable in Dillsboro and one in Bryson City, where the steam engine could be turned around. Currently, the tourist train based out of Bryson City simply goes in reverse when reaching the end of its trip in order to return to the depot. But steam engines cannot move in reverse like the diesel engine that currently runs on the railroad.

Each year, 180,000 people ride the privately owned Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, and the new steam engine will increase business by 15 or 20 percent, said Al Harper, owner of the railroad.

“Any steam engine will draw attention,” he said. “There just aren’t a lot of steam engines around anymore.”

And, the turntables themselves would be a big draw for visitors, especially if they include a viewing walkway where spectators can watch the engine being rotated.

The turntables as well as the creation of a walkway surrounding the mechanisms would cost about $600,000 total, plus about $450,000 to move the steam engine and railcars from Maine. It is unclear exactly how much the railroad would put up itself versus how much it is asking for.

 

A slice of the pie

While Swain and Jackson counties may be amenable to helping the railroad, as talks continue they may bump heads over a fairly significant detail. Both counties would like the steam engine based in their hometown as a condition of putting up money.

“I am very much in favor of the steam engine, and I’m in favor of the turntables,” said Robert White, a Swain County commissioner. “It’s unique.”

However, White would prefer that rides on the new engine originate from Bryson City.

“As far as I’m concerned, the steam engine should come out of Bryson City,” White said. “That is going to be a decision made by Mr. Harper.”

White added that the county is willing to do anything it can to help the railroad as long as it benefits Swain County.

Meanwhile, Jackson County has been clear that is wants the steam engine based out of Dillsboro for at least five years.

Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten said the county would insist on that in writing as a condition in of any loan or grant the county made.

“We wanted to make sure number one that the train was going to operate mainly out of Dillsboro,” he said.

Harper said that Bryson City would remain the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad’s center of business but that Dillsboro would become the center of operations for the steam engine. This would give both towns a slice of the railway’s revenues.

Swain County commissioners suggested that a meeting between the railroad and leaders in Jackson and Swain counties to iron out the details.

“Everybody wants to see the jobs come in. Everybody wants to see the trains come in,” said David Monteith, a Swain County commissioner.

A talk will not take place for at least another few weeks because several key officials will be on vacation.

“We need a good joint cooperation,” Monteith said.

Talks between Dillsboro and the railroad were put on hold before Christmas because of a problem in Colorado, home to one of Harper’s other railroads.

Gates has spearheaded the negotiations between the Town of Dillsboro and the railroad.

 

Costs unknown

Harper and Dillsboro officials have tossed around various numbers for nearly a year, but it is unknown how much, if anything, Jackson County will chip in to help the railroad.

“That is kind of a wide open thing,” Gates said, declining to list a number until one is presented to the town or county in writing.

Harper said he is reviewing his original plans and looking for ways “to get the cost down.” One option would be to sell the eight passengers cars that he purchased along with the steam train and only transport the engine to Western North Carolina, he said.

“I really don’t need more rail cars,” Harper said.

Moving the steam engine train from Maine will cost about $450,000 on top of the $600,000 for turntables, but no one was willing to say how much the total project will cost.

“We don’t have a final idea of what funds are available,” Harper said.

However, Harper did say at one point he could pick up half the tab of moving the train if Jackson County paid the other half.

Meanwhile, Gates is hoping that Dillsboro to help the railroad land a grant for up to $200,000 in Golden Leaf Foundation to help pay for the turntables.

However, more details must be settled before the town can submit a funding application.

“We can’t apply for a Golden Leaf grant because we’re not ready to,” Gates said.

The town needs the support of Swain and Jackson counties as well as Bryson City if it wants to move forward with the project.

 

Boon town

The train used to run from Dillsboro to Bryson City and beyond, but in 2005, the railroad moved its base of operations to Bryson City.

“(In the past) There hasn’t been the cooperation with Dillsboro,” Harper said. “There were some feelings for a while that Dillsboro did not care about the railroad.”

The railroad is a boon for whichever town it originates from. People riding the train shop in the town’s stores and eat at its restaurants both before and after their ride. While those stops along the tracks such as Dillsboro also benefit, the economic ramifications are considerably less because visitors only have a 90-minute layover in the town.

“We need something to get ‘em to stop here,” said Tim Parris, an alderman from Dillsboro.

When the railroad shifted its headquarters to Bryson City, Dillsboro suffered as tourism declined. The steam engine would bring those visitors back to Dillsboro.

The town indirectly lost about 44 jobs as a result of the move, Gates said.

The railroad has said it will hire 15 people to run its operations out of Dillsboro, but the return could create more jobs at local shops and restaurants, Gates said.

After years of talk and little action, Swain County is moving forward with a long-held dream to turn its iconic, domed courthouse into a cultural history museum and visitors center.

The architectural centerpiece of town, the old courthouse has been mostly empty for three decades since court functions moved out in the 1929s, aside from housing a senior center that has since relocated.

“We’ve had this vision for a long time,” said Ken Mills, executive director of economic development.

The county has seriously discussed such a transformation since 2009, though the idea was tossed around for years prior to that. In that time, Mills has not heard a derogatory comment about the county’s plans.

“We have never had anyone say it was a bad project, a useless project,” Mills said.

The cost of renovations is estimated at $750,000. But, by using some of its own building and maintenance employees to do some of the work, the county hopes to reduce the overall price tag, Mills said.

The county has taken out a $600,000 loan for the project. Another $100,000 is being kicked in by the Great Smoky Mountains Association, which will run a bookstore in the museum. The non-profit functions as a support arm for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, operating bookstores inside the park selling everything from guidebooks and maps to souvenirs.

The Swain County Chamber of Commerce will move at least part of its visitor center operations into the old courthouse. The chamber is not sure yet how much of its operations will move into the refinished courthouse, said Karen Wilmot, executive director of the Swain County chamber.

“We support this project. We very much look forward to this building being renovated,” she added.

Employees from the chamber and the Great Smoky Mountains Association will help man the center.

Several years ago, the county undertook a three-year planning process to identify what stories should be highlighted in such a museum. In addition to the natural and cultural heritage of Swain County, the museum will include the history of the national park, a major drawing card for tourists traveling to the region.

“The park’s history is our history,” Mills said.

The county has also reached out to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to see if they would be interested in being included in the museum exhibits.

The old building, located at the corner of Everett and Main streets, will also offer people access to public restrooms, which could provide crucial for downtown event attendees throughout the year.

 

The blueprints

Most of the estimated project cost will pay for renovating the second floor, which needs considerably more attention than the first floor.

The entrance level was redone in the 1980s and features up-to-date fixtures and molding. One of the few original parts of the building, which was erected in the 1920s, is its outward appearance.

“We’re not really sure how much we will be able to restore,” Mills said. “But, most of the things we have saved we’re going to try to keep and somehow put back in here.”

For example, the county saved the original seating from the upstairs courtroom but was unable to restore stamped tiles that decorated the ceiling.

In simply preparing for the renovation, county workers have uncovered several hidden elements of the old courthouse. At some point in its long history, the county decided to drop the ceiling level in the courtroom, concealing a number of small windows at the top of the walls.

In the past, unfortunate souls who found themselves face-to-face with the county judge could look up, through a window in the ceiling to a still functioning bell that crowns the old courthouse. Somewhere along the way, however, the windowpanes were painted white, depriving people of the view.

The main visible changes to the first floor will include new furniture and a long wooden counter where someone will greet and aid visitors, and vignettes painted on the walls, similar to those at the new Great Smoky Mountains National Park Oconaluftee Visitors Center at the park entrance outside Cherokee.

The upstairs portion, which will serve as the museum, is quite a different story. With some missing windows, no ceiling beyond wooden beams and a concrete floor that failed the pounds-per-square-inch test, the second floor will need the most renovation.

“We are going to end up redoing this whole upstairs,” Mills said.

The upper level once served as the courtroom and could in the future include artifacts such as the shell of a log cabin, showing how the people of Swain County once lived.

Several county residents have already offered to display their family artifacts in the museum.

Once construction begins, the renovations will take two years.

“We are hoping to get started soon,” Mills said.

Mills said the new visitor center and museum will hopefully draw more people, or rather potential customers, to the town.

In addition to renovating the building, the county plans to construct a parking lot behind the building that could be accessed via Main Street. Currently, the gravel-covered lot sits empty.

Mills said he did not know how much the lot would cost, but it has not been figured into the estimated renovation costs.

The county is also looking into put a small park next to the lot, where people can just sit or have lunch.

“We are hoping to have nice green space out there,” Mills said.

Bryson City Fire Department failed its state mandated insurance inspection last week for failing to respond to false alarms.

The department would often be en route to a call when firefighters heard from 9-1-1 dispatchers that it was actually a false alarm. The dispatcher would cancel the call, and the volunteer firefighters would go back home. It is unknown how many instances there were. It only takes two so-called “non-responses” to fail the inspection, and after that the state quits counting, said Marni Schribman, a public information officer with the N.C. Department of Insurance, in an email.

The state requires fire departments to respond to the scene, even in the case of a false alarm, to verify it is indeed false. The inspector met with the local dispatch supervisor and informed them of the rule, Schribman said. The dispatch supervisor said they will now notify the fire department if a call is a false alarm but will not cancel the fire department’s response, she said.

The argument over the non-responses seems to be a matter of paperwork, however.

If at least four firefighters do not report to the scene when a fire alarm is triggered, the call must be classified as a non-response. In some cases, a single firefighter may continue to the scene, but if the required four do not, it gets logged as non-response.

Fire departments are required to submit all their calls to the N.C. Department of Insurance. There is nowhere in the filings for the fire department to indicate if a firefighter confirmed a false alarm call, said David Breedlove, coordinator of Swain County 9-1-1.

Dispatch is working on how it logs calls to make records more comprehensive, Breedlove said.

Swain County’s three volunteer fire departments receive about 20 false alarm calls each year, he said. Most of the false alarm calls come from non-residential buildings, and a worker is usually present to confirm over the phone to the dispatcher that there is indeed no fire.

The Bryson City Fire Department has now been placed on a 12-month probation and must not report any non-responses during that time.

“If they continue to have non-responses on a regular basis, then they could lose the current insurance rating,” Schribman said.

The probation will not affect their current rating or insurance rates for homeowners in their coverage area. The fire department has a good rating, Schribman said.

The state insurance department must inspect fire departments at least every five years, and a low rating could cause the price of homeowner’s insurance to rise.

The Cashiers Glenville Fire Department in neighboring Jackson County only receives two or three false alarms each year.

“We don’t have a whole lot,” said Corey Middleton, chief of the department.

Often times, false alarms are triggered by strong winds or thunderstorms, Middleton said. When the department learns that the alarm is false, whoever is closest to the scene continues to the address to confirm the false alarm, he said.

Swain County High School’s football players and coaches on Monday were in a different sort of huddle than usual. Instead of planning the next play, they were picking out a design for their championship rings following Saturday’s 20-14 win over Ayden-Grifton.

They also were trying to absorb certain key facts, such as emerging from a hard-fought football season as the state’s 1-AA champions. And becoming the only Swain County team ever to win more than 15 games in a season.

That’s saying a lot — this is Swain County’s eighth state football championship title, though it represents the school’s first since 2004.

Player Lee Pattillo and Quarterback Colby Hyatt — Hyatt was named the game’s most valuable player for rushing 70 yards and passing for 48 more — looked a bit like deer in headlights. They admitted feeling sort of like deer in headlights, too.

“It’s awesome, unbelievable,” said Pattillo, whose father is head coach Sam Pattillo. Lee Pattillo led the team in tackles this year.

After helping to pick out the ring design, the football players returned to classes. Though it’s doubtful they were able to focus much on this day — or any of their excited classmates, for that matter — on assigned school material.

 

Opportunity called, Swain answered

Coach Pattillo is a soft-spoken, seemingly unassuming man. He’s answered a lot of questions lately about Swain football, and patiently answers each reporter’s version no matter how repetitive they must, by now, truly seem.

What does a state championship mean to you, the team, the school, the community?

“It’s a big accomplishment,” Pattillo said. “… winning a championship is something special.”

What was different about this team; did luck play a part?

“I don’t believe in luck,” Pattillo said in reply. “I believe in opportunities.”

And, he added, in hard work, talent and commitment, both on the field and in the classroom.

“If we’d not won, we would have been disappointed, but we still would have done our very best,” Pattillo said. “And I think that’s all you can do.”

Many at this school, at least the guys working here, seem to have played high school football. Swain County High School Principal Mike Treadway, a broad-shouldered, burly man whose physical presence dominates his small administrative office, played on Swain’s 1985 state championship football team.

Though Treadway clearly relishes the team’s accomplishment, he said that the real goal here is achievement in the classroom and in other areas of life. And that goes for all of the various students who attend Swain County High School, no matter whether it’s playing in the band, hitting volleyballs over a net, or even catching touchdowns on the field in pursuit of a state championship.

“We’ve only had one fellow leave and make money off football,” Treadway said pointedly.

That would be U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, a standout football player at Swain County High School and, later, at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville before turning pro with the Washington Redskins.

 

Ties that bind

If there’s been one anchor to give weight to the Swain County football program through each of the school’s eight state titles, it’s Offensive Line Coach and Assistant Principal Billy Jenkins. The players and coaches were crowded into his office selecting the ring design.

Jenkins played on a state football championship team in Robbinsville. He has coached for 32 years in Swain County, making him an integral part of every state football championship the school has won: 1979, 1985, 1988, 1989, 1990, 2001, 2004 and 2011. Jenkins just participated in his final game, however, he’ll retire at the end of the school year.

“It’s just time,” he said in explanation.

The ties that bind this school and team are incredible. Jenkins started his job at Swain County in the spring of 1979 when Coach Pattillo was a quarterback for the Swain team, leading them to the school’s first state championship that year. Jenkins has now helped coach Pattillo’s son, Lee, to the school’s most current championship, and coached Principal Treadway to the one won in 1985.

Jenkins is no less thrilled with, or jaded by, this eighth championship.

“It doesn’t get old at all,” he said. “They’re all great. And, as a coach, you want these kids to win one, because it’s something that you never forget, playing on a state championship team.”

If you want to talk high school football in Swain County there’s plenty of options. But one of the most enjoyable is to head to Smith’s Dry Goods on Everett Street, a Bryson City mainstay since the mid 1970s, and a place that doesn’t just smack of local color — Smith’s Dry Goods is local color personified.

Here in the wooden-floored, unabashedly blue-collar store you’ll often find former player David Smith, sporting his trademark Swain Pride ball cap, bellied up to the welcome heat of a big woodstove. He’ll undoubtedly be talking about the latest game — or the upcoming game, or even Swain County football games played several decades ago — while customers shop for items such as work clothes and work boots.

This was a Friday, game day, in Swain County. Smith, along with everybody else in this small town, was excited. Everyone, practically, seemed intent on being at the game that night. Which in Smith’s book is exactly how it should be, and why Swain County is such a fantastic place to live if you are a local football fan. At least, this is the place to live for those fans supporting Swain County football and who bleed the school’s colors of maroon and white, of course.

“The town could just about burn down, and no one would realize it until after the game,” Smith said, only semi-jokingly.

How important is football here in Swain County, where the population stands just fewer than 14,000 residents? The Chamber of Commerce has changed the annual Christmas parade from Dec. 3 to Dec. 10 so as not to conflict with the upcoming state championship game; and here in Bryson City, even the town’s crosswalks are painted maroon and white.

 

Football unifies community

Last Friday night, the Maroon Devils — cheered on by Smith and hundreds of other screaming Swain County fans — played West Montgomery for the right to vie for a state championship. Swain County ultimately won the game in heart-stopping fashion, off the kicking foot of player Evan Sneed, who saved the day and the hopes of Swain County football fans with his 32-yard kick. There were just 33.6 seconds left in the game at the time.

It took Swain’s players most of the game to rally from a near-fatal thumping in the first quarter.

“It was 28 to nothing at the end of the first quarter. We were wondering where our team was at,” said Teddy Green, a sports photographer in Swain County who has been shooting Swain football games for 35 years.

But in an amazing turnaround, the team closed the gap 28-21 by the end of the second quarter.

“By halftime they had the Maroon Machine hitting on all pistons,” Green said. “It was wonderful. It was so exciting. I tell you the truth, it was down to the wire.”

As for Sneed’s winning kick?

“That boy is a hero,” Green said. It was the first game Swain has won via a field goal in at least 15 years.

Football serves as a unifying force that has long knitted the people of Swain County together — the game is more of a passion than a sport here. This is one of the state’s powerhouse football programs, with a total of seven state championships. The last one was in 2004. Now Swain will play for the 1-AA state championship title Saturday against Ayden-Grifton High School, located in Pitt County.

Swain is 14-1 this season, and has won the last 11 games here at home. Swain County Coach Sam Pattillo coaches the team. That Pattillo is homegrown — a former Swain County quarterback now leading the team to victories — makes this team’s run at another state championship all the more sweet in Bryson City.

That’s endeared Teresa Maynard even more tightly to the team, too, though she’s admittedly not a huge fan of the actual sport of football itself. But Swain County football? Now that’s entirely different matter. A horse of a different color — a maroon and white horse — as it were.

“I’ve known Sam all of his life,” Maynard said proudly, taking a brief break from her volunteer job at the Friends of the Library Bookstore to chat. “I keep up with Sam through the newspaper, and with what he’s doing. I would really like to see him go all of the way — we are so proud of him, and of the football team and all of their coaches.”

Maynard, a Swain County native who lived away from the area for a time, knows what a great football community exists here.

“The local people are football people,” Maynard said. “You think Swain County, you think football.”

 

Want fries with that?

If you come to Bryson City on a game day, you might want to stop at Na-Bers Drive-in along the Tuckasegee River. If it’s in the evening, you could find yourself dining with many of Swain County’s football players and cheerleaders. There’s a tradition here of eating at the six-decades old restaurant before each home game.

Eating at Na-Bers is considered good luck.

So what do the football players eat? Practically anything and everything on the menu — and plenty of it, said owner Ronnie Henderson.

“I’ve seen them eat hamburger steak, cheeseburgers, all of it,” Henderson said. “They’ll show up in a wad, three or four at a time in one car.”

These days, Na-Bers stays open only from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. There is more restaurant competition in town than in the old days, when the drive-in would serve its trademark burgers and shakes as late as 1:30 a.m. on game nights. The place would be packed with fans and players, all eager to relive the game play by play, in endless and seemingly down to the smallest detail.

“We don’t stay open like that anymore, but we’ll stay open as late as people are here,” Henderson said.

Lance Holland isn’t exactly a newcomer to Swain County, but the owner of Appalachian Mercantile on Everett Street previously lived in Graham County and his daughter went to Robbinsville High School.

The Black Knights in Graham County, even the most ardent Swain County fan might agree, have played some pretty good football of their own. Between 1969 and 1992, Robbinsville High School’s football program won 12 Class 1A state titles. Holland, a former football player in Georgia, cheered them on. These days, however, Holland has caught the fever for Swain County football.

“I certainly am pulling for them,” Holland said while finishing up a smoke outside his store.

This Swain County team, Holland added, is really a good, fun one to watch.

“If you’re still practicing on Thanksgiving, like this team was, you made it pretty far,” he said.

 

Overwhelming community support

A bicycle shop might not seem like the place to stop and chat about local high school football. But sports are sports, after all, and football in Swain dominates everything anyway, at least during a championship drive — even conversation at the bicycle shop.

Diane Cutler, co-owner of Bryson City Bicycles, has been suitably impressed by football’s uniting power in Swain County since moving here about two-and-a-half years ago. Things were different in her previous hometown, the big city of Raleigh.

“It was hard to have that same concentration of attention there,” Cutler said. “But here, there’s an outpouring of support from the community.”

 

What else but football?

Down the road, at a new consignment shop in a new small strip mall along the river, local lawyer Elizabeth Brigham was overseeing sales. Brigham helped open the store, and agreed to cover business there on this day. She jokes about this being a “one-stop shop” where Swain County’s finest can take care of both their legal and shopping needs.

How important does she believe football is to the people of Swain County?

“Is there anything else here but football?” Brigham responds rhetorically.

Well, yes there is, of course. But not today, game day, with the team headed toward a possible eighth state championship.

Brigham’s boys didn’t play on the team, though one played a bit of league football, she said. That doesn’t prevent her from appreciating what the game does overall for this community.

“It brings the people here together,” Brigham said. “You can be of a different political mind, a different religious mind, but one thing unifies everybody in Swain County: football.”

 

Listen to the game

Swain County’s bid for its eighth state football championship takes place Saturday, Dec. 3, in Winston-Salem. A web broadcast will begin at 10:45 a.m. The pre-game show and kickoff is scheduled for 11 a.m. Listen to this live audio stream by going to www.ustream.tv and typing “maroon devils network” in the search box.

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