It’s been a long time, but once there were more towns along the banks of Wilson Creek.
Northwestern Caldwell County is now dominated by recreation, from kayakers to campers. But at the beginning of the 20th century, the area was home to about 1,000 people, living in Mortimer and Edgemont, towns cut through by railroad tracks and battered by floods.
On Saturday, people crowded into the Wilson Creek Visitor Center for Heritage Day. Hosted by the Collettsville Historical Society each year, Heritage Day is something of a reunion for descendants of what visitor center operator Glynis James calls “the old families.”The old families’ ancestors lived in Mortimer, a company town that at various times housed a lumber distributor and a cotton mill, or in Edgemont, a nearby resort town.
Others who come for Heritage Day are casual observers. And then there’s a third category: people who fell into the history of this place without quite meaning to. Category three includes Wayne Beane, who co-founded the Collettsville Historical Society after digging into the history of his wife’s hometown, and Dr. Jane Roberts and her husband, Ken, who got interested after Ken Roberts became principal at Collettsville School in 1959.
About halfway through the day, a group of casual observers – visitors from an assisted living community in Morganton – took a tour of the old towns with two category threes.
The Robertses pointed out the barely-there remains of the hotels in Edgemont and the mess hall where men in President Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps made $30 a week and sent all but $5 home to their families. They pointed through bus windows at crumbling railroad trestles and explained that when the trains were still running, operators would stop if the ladies on board saw a particularly juicy blackberry patch.
They took their guests to the ruins of the cotton mill and showed them the plants crawling up the concrete walls. They talked about the movie theater and symphony orchestra that Mortimer once had, and about the 1960 census, which confirmed that the town had three residents left.
Back at the visitor center, everyone flipped through old photographs, aided by the master, Wayne Beane. It’s how he got started researching the history of this end of the county – collecting old pictures.
The historical society has now meticulously documented that history, publishing calendars and spiral-bound books of photos and newspaper clippings – and cataloging all of the area’s gravesites along with their GPS coordinates, in case the cemeteries are ever razed by developers.
As they flip through photos and sheets of yellowed newspaper, the folks at the visitor center talk about the old days and the old stores, whittling down to the most specific points of history. They talk about the terrific and devastating floods in 1916 and 1940. They talk about Ethel Crump, who worked at the cotton mill in Mortimer at age 12 and is still alive, about to turn 100.
And they sit on the porch and rock, remembering something that was – and maybe still is.