My recent trip to western North Carolina was like the gift that kept on giving of Twelve Mile Circle article ideas. Sadly I’ve reached the end of the line on that thread so this will be the last article that contains a connection to that earlier adventure. As noted in a prior installment, I enjoyed walking around Asheville in the early morning before the town woke up. I discovered all sorts of interesting nooks as I wandered aimlessly down deserted streets. One was the Thomas Wolfe House on Spruce Street, included as part of the museum complex at 52 N. Market Street (map).
Thomas Wolfe Memorial (my own photo)
This inviting structure has been designated as the Thomas Wolfe Memorial State Historic Site, the childhood home of the author. The Queen Anne style home served as a boardinghouse operated by Wolfe’s mother. He used it as a backdrop for his thinly veiled 1929 autobiographical novel, "Look Homeward, Angel." That distinction certainly made it a property worth preserving. It occurred to me that oftentimes a famous person’s adult home might be preserved while his or her childhood home might be neglected, with notable exceptions of course. Certainly preservation made sense here.
Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum Properties by Missouri Division of Tourism (cc)
Another place where I thought preservation made sense was the Mark Twain Boyhood Home at 206-208 Hill Street, in Hannibal, Missouri (map). Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain, drew upon his youthful memories from Hannibal for some of his novels. These included actual locations associated with people who inspired major fictional characters such as Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and Becky Thatcher.
That was all fine and appropriate. However I wanted to bring the concept into the present. I wondered if there were people of more recent vintage whose childhood homes might someday become national historic landmarks. Where would tourists flock and stand in line to walk through rooms where a notable person once lived as a child? The big one of course was Elvis Presley, and for him that distinction had already been achieved. I wrote about Elvis’ early childhood shotgun-shack in Tupelo, Mississippi in The Cult of Elvis back in 2009. After Elvis, then the next logical choice might have to be…
Michael Jackson first house by Paolo Rosa on Flicker (cc)
What would be a bigger Thriller than driving down to the corner of 23rd and Jackson Street in Gary, Indiana (map)? The Michael Jackson house probably stood a solid chance of becoming an historic landmark to rival anything from Elvis. It already seemed to be generating cult-like status barely five years after Jackson’s death judging by the numerous photos I saw on the Intertubes. Invariably images showed throngs of people, piles of tributes, a large granite marker and a generally celebratory environment courtesy of pilgrims and devotee that converged there.
Another question remained. Will tourists ever be able to visit Neverland Ranch like they can Graceland?
Kurt Cobain’s Childhood Home; Aberdeen, WA
via Google Street View, October 2012
I moved on to another music icon, albeit from a different genre. Kurt Cobain passed away at the height of success while fronting the band Nirvana, in 1994. One would think that his childhood home might attract the attention of some of his fans, and yet it didn’t seem to resonate much. The real estate website Redfin featured his mother’s property at 1210 East 1st St., Aberdeen, Washington (map) in August 2015, "Kurt Cobain’s Childhood Home Drops in Price, Again."
Kurt Cobain’s mother, Wendy O’Connor, just shaved off $71,000 from the price of his childhood home, bringing the new price tag to $329,000… His bedroom, which looks like a converted attic, still has Iron Maiden and Led Zeppelin logos that he stenciled on the walls, and holes from where he punched the walls as a teen.
It would seem to demonstrate great provenance and even some residual historic significance given the doodles and damage. It remained unsold as of a few days ago.
Sandra Bullock’s Childhood Home; Arlington, VA
via Google Street View, July 2014
A childhood home might have historical significance even if the celebrity who lived there happened to still be living, right? I selected Sandra Bullock solely because she lived fairly close to where I live today in Arlington, Virginia. In fact my children will someday attend the same high school that she attended during her formative years, Washington-Lee. Bullock spent most of her childhood at 2925 26th Street North in the Woodmont neighborhood (map). The Arlington County property search website valued the home at $1,241,900 for the 2015 tax year. It also noted that "Bullock John W & Helga M" purchased the property originally in 1966 for $40,000 (and it sold for $1,115,000 in 2005).
Kurt Cobain’s childhood home would be a lot more cost effective for, you know, creepy people who need to own one of those kinds of places.
Mouth of Wilson. I used it as a waypoint during my recent county counting quest and otherwise put it out of mind as I drove through an expansive rural corner of Virginia. It came to mind once again as I passed a sign for another town about an hour farther north and east, Meadows of Dan. How unusual, I thought, to encounter two locations in relatively close proximity to each other with the word "of" embedded in their names. I remembered a similarly concocted town a few miles away from my childhood home called Point of Rocks, sitting just across the Potomac River in Maryland. I tucked the notion away until my return. Interestingly, all of them became known predominantly for something other than the piece-parts of their oddly constructed names.
Mouth of Wilson
Waterfall in Mouth of Wilson Virginia by Jimmy Emerson, DVM on Flickr (cc)
Mouth of Wilson presented a couple of obvious questions. Who was Wilson and why the preoccupation with his mouth? Fortunately answers revealed themselves quite conveniently in Grayson County: A History in Words and Pictures.
When the Frye [sic.]-Jefferson party surveyed the line between Virginia and North Carolina in 1749, a young surveyor named Wilson died. His body was carried to the bank of a nearby creek for burial, hence the name Wilson’s Creek.
Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson surveyed uncharted corners of Virginia including its border with North Carolina, resulting in the definitive map of the colony from that era. Apparently Wilson, whoever he was, never got to see the fruits of his labor. He lived-on in a way many years later when a town grew at the confluence of Wilson’s Creek and the New River. That spot marked the mouth of Wilson’s Creek and the name shortened nicely to Mouth of Wilson.
Nobody much remembered Fry or Jefferson or especially Wilson, although maybe some people had heard of Peter’s son Thomas Jefferson. If by chance people ever caught wind of Mouth of Wilson it had nothing to do with 18th century cartographers. It was for basketball. Here, nearby Oak Hill Academy (map) built a basketball dynasty over three decades. The school never had more than about 150 students at a time and yet it produced a crazy number of professional basketball players. The school’s utter domination of the sport at the high school level continues today (e.g., "The Middle of Nowhere: Oak Hill Academy, the Best Basketball Program on the Planet").
Meadows of Dan
Mabry Mill in Winter by Sheila C. on Flickr (cc)
Flowing waters also underpinned the etymology of Meadows of Dan although there wasn’t ever some guy named Dan to serve as an inspiration. There were beautiful meadows however, and they were found near the upper reaches of the Dan River. One part of the name derived from a 1728 expedition mapping the boundary between Virginia and North Carolina (prior to Fry and Jefferson who improved and extended the line) led by William Byrd. According to the Danville Historical Society,
The surveying party began marking the line at the mouth of the Currituck River on the coast of Virginia, and went westward toward the mountains. When they reached this area, Colonel Byrd and his party encountered "the South Branch of the Roanoak River the first time, which we call’d the Dan."… Colonel Byrd never explained his choice of name for the river. However, the biblical limits of Canaan were "From the Dan to Beersheba." Because the northern limit of North Carolina was in question, "Dan" seemed to be an appropriate name for the river which at that time fixed the boundary in this area between the two colonies.
That likely explained Dan. The meadows portion joined the name much later, as explained by the community of Meadows of Dan,
This broad high mountainous area was settled in the early 1800s, mostly by German and Scotch-Irish settlers that traveled down from Pennsylvania… The Langhorne family, one of the few of English descent in the community, held a land grant that contained much of what is now considered Meadows of Dan… The Langhorne patriarch is credited with giving the area the name "Meadows of Dan". He settled on the headwaters of the Dan River, and grist mills in the Langhorne name were built along the stream.
Few people would know much about Meadows of Dan if it weren’t for two fortunate happenstances. First, Edwin Boston Mabry, a local resident built a wonderfully iconic mill in 1903 (map). Second, the Blue Ridge Parkway ran directly past the mill after its construction as a Depression-era jobs project in the 1930’s. Maybry’s Mill quickly became one of the most heavily visited and photographed spots along the entire parkway.
Point of Rocks
Point of Rocks, Maryland by Bob Wilcox, on Flickr (cc)
I didn’t need to conduct any research to determine the source of the rocky point inspiring a town called Point of Rocks in Maryland. Literally, just west of town stood a point of rocks that I’d seen many times with my own eyes. The cliff might be a notable landmark for bikers on the C&O Canal trail, or to boaters on the Potomac River. Most everyone else would remember Point of Rocks for its nostalgic train station (map), built in 1873 at an important junction where trains routed either to Baltimore or Washington. Of course I’ll always remember Point of Rocks more for the drive-through liquor store of my youth.
Upon Further Consideration
It occurred to me that there may be many more "of" towns. Yet, I couldn’t find them using my usual search techniques and I couldn’t recall any others from memory. Sure, there were a billion examples tied to geographic units, for instance the City of London, District of Columbia, Commonwealth of Virginia, United States of America and the like. Those were all too mundane even to mention. I wasn’t interested in finding more of those. I wanted additional mouths and meadows and points and other strange yet appropriate descriptions of things. I imagined there were probably many very obvious instance that somehow fell into my mental blind spot. What am I missing?
Each Twelve Mile Circle journey has its own specific objectives. The western North Carolina adventure focused heavily on the burgeoning craft brewing scene. Collectively they also share common objectives, principally the pursuit of geo-oddities along with opportunities to pad my county counting totals.
I thought I did well, adding eighteen new counties with fourteen of them found in North Carolina and four in Virginia. In North Carolina I captured Alexander, Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Caldwell, Jackson, Mitchell, Rutherford, Swain, Transylvania, Watauga, Wilkes, Yadkin and Yancey. The Virginia counties were Grayson, Floyd, Franklin and Patrick. These visits happened in six separate efforts, some of them requiring significant forethought and others pleasantly simple. I’ve numbered the efforts in chronological order and noted them on the maps below to show how I added counties sequentially throughout the trip. This labeling exercise also summarized the journey rather nicely and served as a nice bookend for this final article in the series.
North Carolina was the primary focus so I’ll begin there.
(1) Chapel Hill to Asheville
The logical path would have involved Interstate 85 from Chapel Hill and then Interstate 40 onward toward Asheville. That would have made perfect sense if I’d been trying to minimize driving time. It made no sense for this exercise. I’d already captured all of the interstate counties so it didn’t pay to repeat them.
Instead I devised several intermediary jogs that took my path through the towns of Winston-Salem, Wilksboro, Taylorsville and Lenoir. That slightly jagged track yielded new four counties: Yadkin; Wilkes; Alexander and Caldwell. I lost surprisingly little time on this track too, maybe less than an hour.
(2) Blue Ridge Parkway Loop
The wonderful Blue Ridge Parkway day-trip that included a a cave, a waterfall, the highest point of elevation in North Carolina, and a restaurant placed atop a county tripoint also netted three new counties. I captured Avery, Mitchell and Yancey that day.
(3) Oskar Blues
I mentioned before that Oskar Blues made my brewery visit list because it happened to be located in Transylvania County. I wondered if it had any connection to the Transylvania in Romania, the alleged home of vampires and other scary creatures. It didn’t. They both derived their names coincidentally from a couple of very common Latin words, trans ("across") and silva ("woods"). Thus, any place named Transylvania was merely something located beyond a forest. That certainly described western North Carolina a couple of centuries ago when the Transylvania Company tried to form a colony in that unforgiving part of the wilderness.
The Transylvania Company was organized as Louisa Company in 1774 to invest in vacant, nonpatented wild lands within the chartered limits of North Carolina and Virginia. In the fall of that year, Captain Nathaniel Hart visited the Overhill Cherokees at their Otari towns to negotiate for the lease or purchase of an immense tract of land between the Kentucky and Cumberland Rivers… Transylvania Company’s so-called purchase from the Indians was publicly denounced by the governors of Virginia and North Carolina, however, and the scheme was invalidated.
The Transylvania name lived-on when Transylvania County formed much later on some of the same land, in 1861.
(4) Cherokee Loop
We had another entertaining day on the Cherokee Loop that took us onto the lands of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation, then onward to Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the highest point of elevation in Tennessee. It also netted Jackson and Swain Counties.
(5) Lake Lure & Chimney Rock
I admitted a couple of days ago that I’d orchestrated a day trip to Lake Lure and Chimney Rock simply to capture Rutherford County, and fill a doughnut hole on my map. It was worth a stop regardless.
(6) Asheville, NC to Roanoke, VA
Returning home, once again the logical path would have involved the Interstate Highway System, specifically I-26 and I-81 here. However I had to capture a number of quite obscure rural counties and this became the most ambitious county counting adventure of the trip. It involved a complicated series of intermediary waypoints on the eastern edge of the Blue Ridge including two short out-and-back detours designed to prevent doughnut holes.
Just as we left Mouth of Wilson, Virginia on a double-back to capture Alleghany County, North Carolina — the photo at the top of the page (map) — my younger son announced he needed to pee. Immediately. We were in the middle of nowhere, miles from the nearest facilities of any kind, and on a mission. Nonetheless, being the good father that I am, I pulled over to the side of the road and scouted a suitable tree to shield his act of desperation. That’s when I noticed I was standing within a patch of poison ivy. I grabbed a water bottle from the car and washed off furiously, then sped to the nearest gas station bathroom where I scrubbed my legs with soap and water repeatedly. I escaped mostly unharmed and chalked it up as another hazard of County Counting.
Don’t worry about the kid, he found a more suitable tree minus the poison ivy.
Those four new Virginia counties in an out-of-the-way corner left me within striking distance of finishing the Commonwealth. Virginia is notoriously difficult to complete because it has 95 counties plus 38 independent cities that are considered county-equivalents, for a total of 133 separate units that must be visited. I have five remaining in a fairly straight path. I figure I can knock-out the rest of Virginia in a weekend and I plan to do so within the next few months.
Western North Carolina articles: