“It’s good to see you again,” Edie Hutchins Burnette smiles, all the while corralling her enthusiastic canine. “This is Heidi. She’s real friendly. Don’t let her bark make you think otherwise.”
Built by her father (a pillar of Canton and school superintendent from 1924 to 1953), Burnette’s childhood home is cozy and welcoming. It’s filled with old photos of loved ones, many of which are gone from this earth, including her husband Charles (aka “Chili”). There are shelves of books documenting Appalachian life and lore, antique furniture and irreplaceable trinkets — items symbolizing Burnette’s past and deeply rooted family ties of a life spent residing and thriving in Canton.
At 80, she’s a babe in the woods as they say. Still feisty and antsy, with a childlike wonder and endless curiosity that truly adheres to the adage “you’re only as old as you feel.” And good thing, too, seeing as it was that keen inquisitive nature within Burnette that blossomed into a bountiful career as a longtime journalist, one who captured the life of the characters that roamed Haywood County and greater Western North Carolina.
A mother, social worker, educator and writer, Burnette has garnered a joyful place in this world. It’s an existence filled with unforgettable experiences — moonshiners to lumberjacks, veterans to football players, farmers to rebels — that found their way into her new collection of stories, Mountain Echoes. The over 400-page book encompasses the unique people, history and wisdom that caught her attention and were published for several years in the pages of the Asheville Citizen-Times.
Sitting down with Burnette, one feels like they’re talking to a dear friend, even if it may be your first time crossing paths with her. It’s that sincere interest in people and conversation that allowed her to dig below the surface of just what makes mountain people — in her blood and within her presence — tick.
Garret K. Woodward: What brought this on? Why this collection now?
Edie Hutchins Burnette: I thought about it over a period of time. I have a double second cousin (Carroll Jones) who has published four books. And he had read my columns. He kept pushing and pushing, telling me I needed to put something together. And, of course, if you’re interested in writing, having a published book is always a dream.
GKW: Has it been weird going through all those old columns? Do you remember all those people?
EHB: Oh, yes. It’s been full circle kind of thing. I wanted to capture the history of these people before it got lost. I felt a sense of urgency to put together this collection because so many of my primary sources have died.
GKW: What do you see these days when you look at Haywood County, the whole ebb and flow of this area?
EHB: When you think about the past, the industry has seesawed. In the beginning, Hazelwood was heavily industrialized. Of course, Champion Fibre Company (now Evergreen Packaging) was here in Canton, and then Dayco came to Waynesville (now closed). It’s been a constant shift, which makes things interesting.
GKW: What is it about Haywood County that sets if apart from other places?
EHB: The people are, by and large, fascinating. But, there are so many different backgrounds. The first people who came here, they came with empty suitcases. But, they came with a head full of various things — ingenuity, old-time music, creativity.
GKW: I agree, wholeheartedly. I think people move here for a reason, even if they don’t know what that reason is at the time. Something about this place is magnetic.
EHB: That’s exactly what I was going to say. I’m not a mystic by any means, but I feel a real drawing sensation from these mountains.
GKW: Why writing? What does it do for you?
EHB: I feel compelled to do it. It’s an urge. Your fingers itch.
GKW: What were you looking for in your subjects? Was your antenna always up?
EHB: My antenna was always raised. Thanks to my father and grandfather, those two specifically, I had been to so many places in this county. Primarily in the woods. And I just picked up all these tidbits here and there. Then, I went back and did the research, which became the columns. I also knew some local people. Joe Worley was one, and Charles Cathey, who is a cousin of mine. They were real knowledgeable about local history. Well, I never left each of them without a notebook full of information and ideas. And the North Carolina section of the Haywood County Public Library in Waynesville is invaluable. Also, Champion Fibre Company had a magazine, called “The Log,” and there are bound copies in the Canton Area Historical Museum. I would sit there and look through them, and see all these families and names that I remembered.
GKW: It must be odd to have this attention put on you with this book?
EHB: It is. People remember. They remember. It just chronicles various parts of their lives, and they like to think about it.
GKW: It’s about preserving those who are physically disappearing, and also the events and stories that are becoming lost in the minds of this region.
EHB: You know, I have noticed that many of the high school graduates that I knew, they’re coming back. They feel that pull. It was a safe place to live. Everyone was looking out for you. It was not unusual for a neighbor to take on ways to help one another. We haven’t lost it all. It’s still a great place to be.
GKW: I feel folks are guarded these days, and perhaps suspicious.
EHB: You know, mountain folk have always been suspicious. And when I did these stories, I went places that no one knew who I was. I don’t know where I got the nerve to just walk up and knock on their door.
GKW: I think it’s pure curiosity.
EHB: Yeah. [Laughs].
GKW: What stories stick out the most?
EHB: Several people have asked me that. But, in the back of my mind, I wanted to help dispel the stereotypes of the “dumb hillbilly.” I wanted to feature these people, and all of those things they accomplished, all done with very little. It was because of this innate, intellectual ability, I guess. People here are rather perceptive. They have this sense just like a dog. They pick up rather quickly on who’s good and trustworthy, and who is not. And there are so many stories I didn’t include in this one. I always have ideas in my head, things I’ve yet to write about. I’m not going to predict about a second book yet, because I’m not getting any younger. [Laughs].
GKW: And a big focus of this collection, and in your life, is the Canton paper mill.
EHB: I have a real big compulsion for writing about Reuben B. Robertson (president of Champion) and all he did for the people here. He came from Ohio, but he grew to sincerely love the mountain people. And he did so many things to help them make a life in a new world, where they were accustomed to farming and logging. It was like when the railroad came. This area was isolated. Then they cut through the banks and ran the railroad, and looked what followed. The mill, it’s been just so much a part of being in Canton. I’d hate to visualize life without it.
GKW: I feel face-to-face communication is a lost art these days.
EHB: I think that’s a real loss. We’re too “busy.” Too many electronic toys. The human connection is vital. I loved going out and talking to people. And if they feel that you’re receptive to them, they just open right up. I want people to have respect for these mountains and these people, to enjoy the history and stories that make this place great.
GKW: And yet, the odd thing is, when you do engage with somebody these days, you find they’re starving for conversation.
EHB: Absolutely. All they want is a ready ear. It made me very happy. There was this one man who had lived in Cruso. His daughter called me and asked me to come and talk to him. He wanted to tell me about Spruce, which was logging camp up in Sunburst. And what he said to me was, “If I don’t tell you, it won’t be remembered.” He didn’t want the story and history to be forgotten. It was a gift he was giving to me. And I walked away with so many gifts from people.
Want to go?
Beloved Southern Appalachian columnist Edie Hutchins Burnette will read from her new collection Mountain Echoes at 3 p.m. Saturday, April 23, at Blue Ridge Books in Waynesville. You can purchase a copy of the book (from Jan-Carol Publishing) at the reading or online at www.amazon.com.