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The signing of a cash settlement deal for Swain County last week was a heartbreaking end to a lifelong struggle for many.
For decades, road supporters held on to hope — hope that the government would honor the promise it made in the midst of a wide-scale evacuation to make way for the creation of Lake Fontana in the 1940s. The lake flooded the only road that led to their former communities, but they believed one day it would be rebuilt, allowing them to visit their former home sites and family cemeteries inside the Smokies.
To some descendents of those who lived along what is now called the North Shore, the road symbolized a connection to their past, a sense of place and a link to their heritage. The loss of the road is profound.
Charlene Blankenship, a road supporter, said family members have promised each other on their deathbeds they would never stop fighting for a road to their old cemeteries.
Linda Hogue, a leader behind the fight, said she will have more time on her hands now. She’ll spend it in her garden, with family and being more active in church, she said. But she also plans to turn her energy toward this year’s county commissioner elections, working to unseat those who voted for the cash settlement.
On the eve of a vote by county commissioners to accept the cash settlement and give up the county’s claim to a road, descendents of the North Shore community held a teary prayer meeting. A few dozen turned out to witness the vote the next day as well as the ceremony on Saturday, but most stayed home because they could not bear to watch, said Blankenship.
A few smuggled protest signs written in black marker on hot pink poster board into the ceremony, folded up inside their jackets or purses, and unveiled them during the myriad speeches. Luke Hyde, a leader of the cash settlement movement who presided over the ceremony, asked the protestors to put their signs away.
“There will be a time and place for protests, but it is not now,” Hyde said to the crowd.
But they continued to display them. One member stood up with her back to the stage, facing the large auditorium, in a silent protest. Many wore black armbands.
Until the bitter end
When commissioners convened the day before the ceremony to vote on whether to accept the cash settlement, David Monteith, the lone commissioner opposed to the vote, stood to deliver lengthy remarks. He challenged and begged the rest of the board not to go forward with the vote.
Monteith repeated his long-standing request that the county conduct a vote to gauge public opinion. He asked if he could be put on the agenda for three minutes during the ceremony to represent the other side of the issue. He also asked to open the meeting to public comment before the commissioners voted.
He put numerous such requests in the form of motions, but none got a second from another commissioner.
Monteith said the county has a legal and binding contract from the government promising to rebuild the road, and it should stand strong rather than be sold out for a cash settlement.
“We’ve had a legal binding contract for 66 years and where has that gotten us?” Commissioner Steve Moon asked. “Do you believe they would ever build the road, David?”
“As God is my witness, yes sir, I think the road would be built if we would stand our ground,” Monteith said. “We’ve been 66 years without a road. I would rather spend another 66 fighting.”
“How long would you be willing to wait?” Moon asked.
“If they brought $52 million in with a wheelbarrow right now, I would still be opposed to it,” Monteith answered.
But Commission Chairman Glenn Jones said accepting the cash settlement was the right decision for the future.
“We need to move on. We don’t need to look at the past. We need to vote on the future for this county,” Jones said.
Carter Petty, the director of Mountain Discovery Charter School, took his class on a fieldtrip to the county commissioners meeting Friday to witness the historic event.
“I want these guys to experience it,” Petty said, as they waited for the meeting to start. “It is a tremendously emotional issue.”
A win for all
Claude Douthit, a leader among the cash settlement supporters, spent 35 years trying to convince people to set their emotions aside and look at the issue rationally. The road would never be built, so the county should try to get something instead of nothing, said Douthit, who in the mid-1970s became one of the early crafters behind the idea of a cash settlement.
“There has been a division in Swain County here for years over this and it needs to be brought to an end so the people of Swain County can get back on track trying their best to cooperate with each other instead of fight with each other,” Douthit said.
Douthit’s son, Jonathan, hopes the next generation will grow up without the division that has burdened the county in the past.
“This is right up there with the Civil War with dividing families,” Jonathan said.
Jonathan said he doesn’t see his side as the winner and the other side as the losers.
“They didn’t lose. We all won,” Jonathan said.
The cash settlement, once it reaches $52 million, could reap more than $3 million a year in interest — nearly a quarter of Swain’s entire budget right now.
“I see the availability for a better quality of life for a lot of people,” Jonathan said. “I think it will be a boon to Swain County and some might not realize it now, but they will see how much vision has been shown by doing this for the future.”
As for Douthit, there were times he thought his dream would never come to fruition, or that he wouldn’t live long enough to see it. An organization formed to advanced the cash settlement, known as the Citizens for the Economic Future of Swain County, has met monthly for 10 years, right up until last week.
“Why did I keep on? That’s the only thing I know, I reckon,” said Douthit.
Suddenly finding a lot more time on his hands is perhaps the one thing he has in common with road supporters.