The barn tilts dramatically to one side. The side of the shed makes a statement of faith: “Jesus Saves” – with an arrow pointing up to the Carolina sky.
God has weight here in Watauga. Dozens of churches dot the landscape. Franklin Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse is one of the largest employers in the area.
Prayer matters. God matters. And Jesus saves…
Watauga County is considered a rural county but the area has seen significant growth in the last few years, driven in part by Appalachian State’s focus on increasing enrollment. At the dawn of the 21st century, Watauga’s population was 42,695. That number has grown significantly – in 2016, the county’s population was almost 54,000 people.
This rapid growth in what has been a traditional, rural community brings conflict, seen in the fierce debates over how to develop the land. How much student housing does Watauga County need? How many asphalt plants? These matters are hotly debated and expensively litigated…
Overlooking a cow pasture and some homes to see construction on the new building for Appalachian State’s Beaver College of Health Sciences.
I come from wandering stock – my mother was an immigrant from Ireland; my paternal grandmother came to America as a child, a refugee from anti-Jewish pogroms in Tsarist Russia. My husband and I grew up in the Midwest; moving to the South in 2011 after a lifetime in Chicagoland was a significant migration for us.
We landed in Watauga County, North Carolina, not far from the Tennessee border. The Appalachian mountains define the geography of the region. These are some of the oldest mountains in the world, rugged, beautiful, worn down by age. (A Colorado tourist referred to the Appalachian Mountains as “shorties – and compared to the Rockies, they are.)
Tourism represents a significant portion of the economy in Watauga – the impact of tourism in 2015 was $231.44 million. The county is dotted with “choose-and-cut” Christmas tree farms that bring in an estimated economic impact of about $14 million.
What we found in Watauga County were many people like us – migrants, people who moved here for a variety of reasons – the view, a job, family.
But we also met people whose families have lived here for centuries. We’ve heard rumors that it’s possible you could perhaps buy land that was deeded to the seller’s family by King George III.
Watauga County is a place people migrate to, but it’s also a place some families never leave.