Category Archive for: ‘Ashe County Articles’
by Lonnie Jones
Imagine being a nine year old girl awakened to shouts, screams, wild incoherent ranting, and loud noises. Then picture yourself walking out on the front porch of your isolated mountain home to find your father standing over your mother with a bloody ax. You plead with your father to stop and then run to your uncle’s home down the road to get help. How scared you would have been!
This scene is real and it happened in Ashe County on June 1, 1903. Ashe County was remote to the rest of the state at that time, but Cut Laurel was remote from Ashe County. The Pond Mountain area is still not easily accessible, I can only image what the roads were like then.
At the Laurel Missionary Baptist Church that week, the Ashe Missionary Baptist Association was having it Annual Associational meeting. This was a well attended event, and many visiting people, especially ministers, were in the area. There were no hotels so the church members agreed to host the visiting preachers in their homes.
Christopher Columbus Davis and his wife Nettie Glenn Davis agreed to host Rev. Alfred Barker who was from Ashe County, NC, and Alfred’s son, Rev. Levi Clayton Barker who was a minister in the Chilhowee, Virginia area. A description of Christopher Columbus Davis or “Crick” as he was known, written later several weeks later, says he was a successful farmer and good carpenter, a devout church member, sober, industrious, but he was known to have a temper, It was said his neighbors knew to not stir him up.
These descriptions, given in court documents and newspaper reports from the time, do not fit well with the rest of our story.
After going to the Davis home and eating a meal with the family, the two preachers retired to bed. Their bedroom was in the house, but you had to go outside and around on a porch and enter the bedroom through a separate doorway. Also in the house that night was the Davis’s three young daughters, the oldest was nine and the youngest by one report was too young to have had a recorded name at the time. Sometime late in the night “Crick” got up and got an ax. Some reports state he had the ax in the house and had spent some time in the evening sharpening it. He went out and entered the bedroom of the two ministers. With one blow he severed the head of Levi Barker, apparently killing him instantly. He then turned to the older Alfred Barker and started attacking him. Barker must have awakened for his cuts were on both arms and on one leg. All of this made a horrible commotion which awakened Nettie Davis from her sleep and she came around to the door trying to stop her husband. His reaction was to attack her with the ax, first knocking her off the porch with blows and then following her to the ground and continuing to attack her. While this was occurring, Rev. Alfred Barker crawled or ran out of the house and into a nearby rye patch to hide.
The children were also awakened and the oldest girl came and intervened with her father and it is said her pleas caused him to stop. She then went quickly to an uncle’s house and brought him back to the house. Here the story gets somewhat confusing. One report says Davis had brought his wife into the house and had laid her near a hearth and was gently treating her wounds. Another report says he had brought her in but was setting weeping beside her.
It is a long way by horse, wagon or even car to the area where Davis lived from Jefferson. But sometime that night or early morning Sheriff B. Sturgill came and arrested him, taking him in a wagon to jail. It was reported in one newspaper that a group of neighbors had gotten together and were threatening to lynch Davis, so the sheriff’s action was a rescue.
In many of the newspaper reports Davis is called a monster, or an insane man, even referred to as a “warlock” by people in the area. This doesn’t match other earlier descriptions of him. His wife lived nine days and died. Levi Barker had been killed in his bed, and his father Alfred lived three additional years before dying of the wounds he received.
Let me hasten to say there were at least three Alfred Barker’s in Ashe County then and two of them had sons named Levi. This has added confusion to the story over the years also.
Davis was tried, was allowed to plead insanity, but then pled guilty to Murder in the Second Degree. On the stand he said. “Something came over me, I don’t know what it was. I would have rather killed myself. The whole affair seems like a bad dream.” He was sentenced to 30 years in prison and apparently served a great many of those years in the North Carolina prison system.
Upon release he lived in Tennessee and in Virginia. He was stopped by police in Virginia who had mistaken him for another person and there was gunplay when they tried to arrest him. He may have wounded an officer, he himself was shot. His family was contacted and took him to the Saltville, Virginia area where he died about six months after the incident.
Nettie Glenn Davis is buried in Ashe County. Many of the descendents of the three daughters live in the nearby area. The Levi Barker family seems to have moved to West Virginia, although many of his brothers and sisters descendents (children of Alfred) do live here still.
No exact reason for these events has ever been known. Many have reasoned he went insane temporarily. Others have thought that since some descriptions of his wife record her as an attractive woman, he became very jealous that night. Others say he was a warlock or witch, killing for some strange reason. Some think his temper flared out of control over something that night. We will never really know.
I shudder to think of the effect this must have had on the church, the family and the whole community in the Pond Mountain section of the county. Even more, I reflect on that night for the three children and especially the older daughter. I know she carried the scene in her mind for all her days.
by Lonnie Jones and Brodrick Shepherd
The Virginia Creeper, and the Abingdon line of the Norfolk & Western Railroad came to Ashe County in 1914. The rail line came for the natural resources of timber and iron ore. At the time, Jefferson was the largest town in Ashe County. But as tracks were laid for the Virginia Creeper, lawyer and businessman Tom Bowie and others successfully lobbied for the train to come through the area where West Jefferson is now located. As a result West Jefferson was built and is now the largest town in Ashe County.
But did you know there was an earlier rail line planned for Ashe County at the turn of the 20th century? This rail line was to take a completely different route than the one eventually taken by the Virginia Creeper. If these plans had come to fruition, there may never have been a West Jefferson, or other towns in Ashe that grew up around the Virginia Creeper such as Lansing, Warrensville or Todd (Elkland).
In 1889 the largest industry in Ashe County was iron ore mining with the Helton community near Grassy Creek at its center. The Ballou Mines, then own primarily by Napoleon Ballou, were the sites of great interest to the outside world. These mines contained of rich iron ore deposits, with several mines having operated there since the early 1800’s.
The ore mined there about from about 1900 to 1905 was sold mostly to the Virginia Iron, Coal and Coke Company in Radford, Virginia. But it was hauled by wagons down along the river towards Independence and on to Radford, Virginia. The largest cost to this industry was this slow and hard transportation. In fact, the transportation costs were so exorbitant that it caused the mines to be closed several times in the 1800’s.
Mining interests had long been chomping at the bit to get a rail line into Ashe County, to get at the Ballou Mines’ iron ore deposits. Napoleon Ballou was reportedly offered as much as $50,000.00 for his holdings (about 1.3 million in today’s dollars). Ballou refused all offers and died in 1897 leaving a will in which he tried to make sure that the land and mineral rights were kept intact for his family down to the lifetimes of his grandchildren. (Napoleon Ballou Will may be found in Deed Book E, page 310, Ashe County Register of Deeds)
An article in the Statesville Landmark on October 6, 1899 has the following quotation: ”The Norfolk and Western people for years endeavored to secure it (the mines) during the life of Napoleon Ballou, but he refused fabulous sums, and died leaving a will, the construction of which would have completely tied up the mine for at least a hundred years. After quite a contest, it was broken. Messrs. Todd and Pell, Doughton, and Fields represented the caveators, and Messrs W.H. Bowers and G.L. Park the respondents.”
After a long legal battle, Ballou’s will was broken in October, 1899. According to articles published in the Columbus Daily Inquirer, The New York Times and other newspapers, “The breaking of the will assures a railroad line for Ashe County.” (Emphasis added)
In 1901, Norfolk & Western began securing easements for a rail line that would follow the North Fork New River from Grassy Creek to the primary Ballou property just above the mouth of Helton Creek. (Easements located in Deed Books QQ and RR, Ashe County Register of Deeds).
There were many people who are interested in leasing the mines and mining the ore. Here are some of the names of people who were interested in those mines: the Cambria Steel Company’s Baltimore Syndicate, John Skelton Williams, and of course, the Virginia Iron, Coal and Coke Company. Minutes of the business meetings of the Virginia Iron, Coal and Coke company show they hoped to mine here in Ashe County at the Ballou mines, but the transportation costs were prohibitive. They could and would mine only if a railroad line came near the mines to cut transportation cost.
The closest railroad was in Galax or in Sugar Grove, both in Virginia. The Norfork & Western Railroad had a line through Marion, and also to Galax, but they could not be persuaded to look at building a line into Ashe County without having the lease themselves on the mines. The line in the Sugar Grove area, which was the Marion and Rye Valley Railroad, had been extended all the way to Sugar Grove, Virginia from Marion, Virginia, to where it intersected with the Virginia Southern Railroad. Eventually the Virginia Southern railroad line in Sugar Grove was extended to Troutdale Virginia, then on up to Fairwood, Virginia, and eventually part way up the White Top Mountain.
Eventually the only company interested in building a railroad into Ashe County was the Marion and Rye Valley Company. But they were a small company and needed to raise the funds to build the line. Their interest was due to the availability of rich timber resources which also existed in Ashe County and the iron ore, making a rail line profitable for whoever built it into the area.
In the 1905 in 1906 minutes of the Board of Directors of the Virginia Iron, Coal and Coke Company show a line projected to be extended to near Mouth of Wilson, Virginia, then up the river to Helton in North Carolina ending near the mines in Ashe County, was indeed being considered. Apparently, the Marion and Rye Valley Railroad line was considering this extension into North Carolina, but the final decision was not to build the railroad because of the cost involved. As time passed, the interest in the iron ore in Ashe County waned as large iron deposits in Minnesota became more accessible.
If Norfolk & Western had followed through with their original plans — think about the possibilities. Could the area around the mouth of Helton Creek have become a town in Ashe County? It was already a large and thriving community with businesses such as the Paisley Iron Forge, Ballou’s Mill, a blacksmith shop and a store. With a railroad, this area could very well have grown into the major town in Ashe County, or at least something like Lansing.
Would the rail line have been extended on up the North Fork to Jefferson eclipsing the establishment of West Jefferson? Would Jefferson have then continued to grow and became the largest town in Ashe County? What impact would this have had on the makeup of Ashe County, its towns, industries, and population? This rail line would likely have changed the entire complexion of Ashe County as we know it today.