Moonfixer, book 2 in the Appalachian Journey series, begins with Bess moving with her new husband Fletcher Elliott to Old Fort, NC, where they lived with Fletch’s parents until they bought 400 acres of the Zachariah Solomon Plantation on Black Mountain.
Cyndi and I recently paid a visit to Old Fort and Black Mountain to try to get a feel for what Bess first saw in this beautiful area of the Appalachians. Since Bess and Fletch arrived by rail, our first visit was to the Old Fort Train Station and Railroad Museum, home of the original train depot. This museum is easy to find as the main locus point is a tall arrowhead sculpture standing beside it. We toured this building which looks much as it did in the early 1900s with original walls showing graffiti dating to 1886 and period railroad artifacts. Of particular interest is a large table model showing the route the train traveled, winding its way through and over mountains. To arrive in Old Fort, Bessie’s and Fletch’s train ride would have taken them though seven hand-dug tunnels and nine miles of track across the Gap (the Eastern Continental Divide is at the top of the Gap) and the Swannanoa Tunnel, 1800 feet long and the longest tunnel on the route at that time. Greeting them would be a manmade geyser, signaling the start of the long climb to Asheville. A disappointment for us was that we weren’t able to visit the geyser since it was closed for repair.
(A winter picture of the museum with the arrowhead statue is shown above.)
We chatted with the docent who knew some of Bessie’s and Fletch’s kin who still live in the area and toured the railroad car which, compared to today’s standards, seemed so bare and uncomfortable. As we walked through the museum and along the wooden platform leading to the car, I could imagine Bessie stepping off the train and looking about, wondering what her life would be like in these mountains.
From there, we went to the Mountain Gateway Museum and Heritage Center where we watched a short video about the construction of the railroad tracks over the mountains, after which we toured the museum, which has an interesting wall depicting pictures with descriptions of herbs used as medicines for different ailments. Since Bessie was a healer and used herbs, an art she learned from her Cherokee grandmother, we found this fascinating. We fell into a conversation with its docent Peggy Silvers who gave us some interesting background about the Copperheads and other secret societies of Western North Carolina and afterward emailed us her research about these, including the Red Shirts, which we write about in Moonfixer. Upon leaving, we noticed two log cabins on the property and enjoyed visiting those.
Then it was onto and up winding Black Mountain to Stone Mountain Baptist Church, to visit the graveyard where Bessie and Fletcher are buried, along with Fletcher’s parents, siblings and a host of relatives. This is the church Bess and Fletch attended, and standing there, looking up at the stately white steeple against the beautiful cobalt sky, time slipped away and I wondered if Bessie knew we were there. I suspect she did.
Outside the church is a fountain offering fresh, clear spring water which tastes sweet but is very cold. The graveyard is large and rambling and (I found) somewhat comforting. Graves are marked with monuments elegant and elaborate to simple headstones and even odd-shaped stones. As we walked along, we were thrilled to find graves of people we’ve written about who we feel are old friends. It pleased us to see someone had put fresh flowers on Bess’s and Fletch’s graves. One thing we have learned is that they were a well-loved couple.
(Although this picture of the church is dark, it shows the steeple quite well.)
We plan to return for another tour to visit the geyser and Black Mountain Museum. But walking along these paths, going up and down Black Mountain, I wondered if we actually do live in a dimensional world, as some scientists claim, where we might possibly at one particular moment have been walking beside Bessie as she made her way to the Crooked Creek Schoolhouse or Stone Mountain Church. Or perhaps she was with us in spirit, as we often feel she is. I like to think so. Aunt Bessie has been an important part of this journey Cyndi and I are on and we really hope to do her justice by writing the best books we can about her very interesting life and kindly deeds.