The Times They Were A-Changin

Like many rural areas in the United States, northwestern North Carolina had not been treated kindly by the 1950s. The upheaval of World War II, the booming industrial sector, and the development of better roads and suburbia drew increasing numbers of young people away. While the baby boom exploded in urban and suburban areas, the northwest saw a slight decline in population when the 1960 census figures appeared.


Tom Dooley

Hang down your head Tom Dooley
Hang down your head and cry
Killed poor Laura Foster
You know you're bound to die

You took her on the hillside
As God almighty knows
You took her on the hillside
And there you hid her clothes

You took her by the roadside
Where you begged to be excused
You took her by the roadside
Where there you hid her shoes

You took her on the hillside
To make her your wife
You took her on the hillside
Where there you took her life

Take down my old violin
And play it all you please
At this time tomorrow
It'll be no use to me

I dug a grave four feet long
I dug it three feet deep
And throwed the cold clay o'er her
And tramped it with my feet

This world and one more than
Where do you reckon I'd be
If it hadn't been for Grayson
I'd a been in Tennessee

There were, however, many people who saw no reason to despair for Watauga County's future. Wade Brown and others worked to develop the Boone Golf Course. The new hospital, Watauga Medical Center, opened. And then a near-miracle occurred.

The mountains had always attracted some visitors. They took in the splendor of the sights, and had relatively little to do with the local residents. The outsiders' view was generally split: either "mountaineers" were ignorant savages in need of conversion or innocent relics of a lost era, and somewhat childlike. Now, as the 1960s began, America suddenly looked to the people of the mountains for wisdom, guidance - and entertainment.

A generation discouraged by the materialism of post-war America, turned off by the excesses of the Beat movement, and looking for something more to life began looking to the nation's roots. From its start in New York City, the Folk Music craze swept across America. It traveled on a song called "Tom Dooley."

Few of the people who listened and sang along to the Kingston Trio's calypso version of "Tom Dooley" realized the song had mountain roots. In fact, it came from here in the High Country. Thomas Dula - the correct spelling of the name, which was locally pronounced "Dooley" - was a Confederate veteran who lived in western Wilkes County. He was popular among the ladies, and wooed and won two of them. There was little romance, however, but quite a bit of sex. The truth of the story, which was well hidden in the Kingston Trio version, was that Dula and one girl friend murdered Laura Foster, Dula's ex-lover. Laura had given Tom syphllis, which he had passed on to his new lover.

Dula tried to flee the state but was captured. According to a legend in the Proffitt family, Nancy Proffitt, then a young girl, stood outside Dula's jail cell in Wilkesboro and heard him sing a song. She shared the song with others, and it spread. One of her nephews, Frank Proffitt Sr., played the song for a folklorist friend, Frank Warner. The Kingston Trio learned it from the singing of Warner.

As the tale began to lead back to Watauga County and Beaver Dam, where Frank Proffitt lived, a national fascination with the mountains began to intensify. College students made pilgrimages to aged singers and pickers all along the Blue Ridge, from Galax to Georgia. Some learned the old tunes, others just recorded them. Some of the best singers, like Doc Watson, became household names.

Gradually, the Folk Music craze sank in a sea of Beatles. But the fascination with the mountains remained. Instead of a mysterious land of barbarity, the young people saw the mountains and the local folks there as bearers of a nearly lost national tradition. A generation sick of materialism saw in the mountains men and women who lived almost separate from a cash economy, with much love of the land and little interest in the modern world. First in a trickle, then in a stream, they began moving to the mountains.

Artists and craftspeople came to learn the old skills. Back-to-the-landers came to experience the realities of subsistence farming, with some modern twists. Some simply came to see what was happening. Others wanted to escape the turmoil of burning cities during the "Long Hot Summers" of the mid-1960s.

Turmoil did indeed seem far removed from Watauga County in the 1960s. With only a tiny native black population, racial tensions remained limited. When demonstrations happened on the Appalachian State campus, they were in support of the Vietnam War. Drugs only appeared in noticeable quantities at the end of the decade. There were, however, still some moonshiners operating in the area.

There were changes on the horizon. One of the biggest came in 1967, when the North Carolina legislature authorized the transformation of Appalachian State Teachers College into Appalachian State University. Four years later, the legislature created the UNC system with ASU as one of the regional campuses. An explosion of growth was about to happen in Boone.

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