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Wednesday, 19 August 2009 14:21

Macon group finishes study of living history farm

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A Macon County group is one step closer to its dream of establishing a Living History Farm, a working replica of a pioneer village where visitors can witness what life was like for the earliest settlers in the area.

An independent consultant has completed the first feasibility study for the project, and the results will be made public within the coming month, said Margaret Ramsey, chair of the Macon County Folk Heritage Association Board of Directors. The nonprofit group is the sponsor of the project.

“It’s not a binding thing, but whatever she says, we will certainly study at length,” Ramsey said of the study.

The completion of the feasibility study marks a key first step in getting the idea for the Living History Farm off the ground, a process that has already been a long one. The farm has been a major goal of the Folk Heritage Association since its formation seven years ago, but fundraising for the feasibility study only began this past spring. The group collected $22,000 from various sources, including the Macon County commissioners, the Town of Franklin and local banks.

More money will be needed to continue the process of establishing the Village, a fact the group recognizes won’t be easy in the current economy.

“We realize that these are tough economic times to try to get anything underway, so we’re not anticipating anything immediately, but we are still trying to lay a firm foundation,” said Ramsey.

 

Preserving heritage

The Living History Farm aims to provide a deeper understanding of today’s mountain heritage by giving visitors a glimpse of early Macon County life.

“Heritage is a living part of us,” said Ramsey. “It’s more than just reading and learning — it’s part of who we are.”

The concept of replicating a working village from a long-ago era isn’t new to Western North Carolina. The Oconaluftee Indian Village in Cherokee transports visitors back to 1750s Cherokee life, complete with villagers who hull canoes, make pottery, and weave baskets. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s Mountain Farm Museum recreates a mountain farm, but it has working exhibits only a few weekends a year. Unlike other villages, the Living History Village will be the first exhibit of its kind to honor the area’s European settlers. According to Ramsey, Macon County makes an ideal location.

“I think it’s representative of all of Western North Carolina,” Ramsey said of Macon. “It was one of the earlier settled counties, and I think there’s been a lot of interest over the years in recording and preserving history here.”

That interest is evidenced by the success of the Macon County Folk Festival, the first official event ever put on by the Folk Heritage Association. Now in its sixth year, the most recent festival welcomed more than 100 exhibitors and its largest crowd to date.

“Our short-range goal has been preserving the heritage through the festival, and it’s been extremely popular and successful,” said Ramsey.

But the group’s long-range goal, and ultimate vision, is the Living History Farm. The county has already donated a 23-acre site for the farm, located along Cartoogechaye Creek behind Southwestern Community College. Ramsey envisions bringing in a collection of historic buildings, such as a log cabin, a one-room schoolhouse, a church and a store, all of which will be restored and furnished on site. The village “won’t be a static exhibit that people just walk through and look at,” said Ramsey. Instead, volunteers in period clothing will be on site operating a grist mill, running a blacksmithing shop, raising a patch of sorghum molasses and performing everyday tasks of a long ago era. Guests will have the opportunity to take part through various activities and classes on heritage skills.

Exactly what time period will be represented is yet to be decided, though Ramsey said the village could feature buildings that represent different periods throughout Macon County’s history.

“We want to do the very best research and planning we can,” Ramsey said. “We’re going to concentrate on making ours different from anything else available. That’s the only way we’re going to get people here and make sure it’s a sustainable thing.”

 

A patchwork effort

One unique possibility for the village is a focus on quilting, a popular heritage craft. Ramsey is the former manager of the Maco Crafts cooperative, a now-defunct group that was once well known throughout the region. The cooperative was particularly recognized for its quilting abilities.

Ramsey has her eye on four particular creations that could play a role at the Living History Farm. One of them is the World’s Largest Quilt, which has been shown up and down the Eastern seaboard and hung in the Kennedy Center and at the Knoxville World’s Fair. The quilt was sold on the condition that it would remain in Macon County permanently and is on display at the WhistleStop Mall. Another creation, known as the Celebrate America Quilt, was won by a local woman who wants to see it displayed. The quilt features the autographs of stars like Alan Jackson, George Strait, and Randy Travis.

Ramsey is trying to track down two other creations. One is the world’s largest quilted wall hanging that hung in the Phillip Morris cigarette plant in Concord until the facility closed two years ago. The other is an original design that commemorated the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville. The whereabouts of the two quilts are currently unknown.

“We’ve got the possibility of [obtaining] these four outstanding and unique quilts,” Ramsey said. “We’d hope to have a place for them and maybe use that exhibit to help attract visitors here.”

 

Keeping the vision

The much-awaited results of the feasibility study will assess the practical and impractical points of the plan for the Living History Farm, and address what it will take for the project to be sustainable. It’s an important first step, but there’s still much work to be done. For now, Ramsey and the Folk Heritage Association members seem determined to see their vision through.

“We’ve got lots of plans and lots of things to pull together, and lots of obstacles in the process,” said Ramsey. “But we’re still in there working.”

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