Rutherwood; or, Life on the Run (10/19) — Chapter Ten, Camellia (1/5)

OUR CAMELLIA HAS BUDS but is taking its own good time blooming this winter. I had trouble photographing the stubborn little buds until I finally thought to put something solid — my hand — behind them.


BOONE, N.C. (Jan. 21, 2020) – The camellia that Timberley planted in our Morganton yard looked like it might bloom soon when we bought it a couple of months ago. We’ve been checking the small plant’s buds religiously, but they don’t seem to be doing anything at all, neither shriveling up nor bursting into a leaf or blossom to adorn one of the world’s most beautiful and fruitful evergreen shrubs.

Indeed, the information card still attached to the plant we bought at Lowe’s Garden Center says that our Camellia sasanqua (C. hiemalis ‘Kanjiro’) is hardy in Zone 7, including Morganton, though not in Zone 6, including Boone. The card also asserts that the plant’s Pepto-pink blossoms appear in fall and winter.

So that’s why we haven’t planted a camellia of any type—and there are a few hundred species—here at the Rutherwood house. That doesn’t count the veritable thousands of hybrids grown by camellia lovers and shown in the late fall, winter and early spring at camellia shows across the country in Zones 7-10. None of them could live through the winter here in Rutherwood, where for the past couple of nights, for example, the temperature dropped to 12 degrees—which old-timers consider to be almost balmy, by the way.

CLOCKWISE FROM UPPER LEFT, Timberley checks out a camellia blossom last month at the Lowe’s Garden Center; front of the old Sloan house, as seen through dahlias like the ones Grandpa loved; our camellia’s info card; and buds on the large camellia bush at my mother’s house.

The first attention I remember paying to camellias came at a Tidewater Camellia Club show during the winter of 1988 at the old Independence Mall in Wilmington, N.C. It was February, and I was homesick for Morganton, from where we’d moved six months earlier. We were living then in Calabash, N.C., and would drive on Sundays, my only true day off, to either Wilmington or North Myrtle Beach, S.C., both to learn about the area and just to get out of our apartment. No matter where else we visited, we usually found our way to a shopping mall; however, stumbling onto that camellia show was serendipity.

Still, seeing all those single blossoms floating in individual Petri dishes and on saucers of fine China arranged on long tables set up in the mall’s walking areas made me even more homesick. As we moved slowly past the displays to study each exquisite bloom, I thought of my mother back home in Morganton. She had often lingered at the dinette window off the kitchen and commented on the large camellia bush outside, whether or not it was blooming yet and how beautiful the blossoms were that winter. A large camellia also stood off one end of the wrap-around front porch of the first house that Timberley and I had rented in Morganton in the mid-1980s, a rambling old two-story structure that had been rented by her grandparents before us.

Like my mother, Timberley’s grandpa, Lester Clark, was a gardener and a lover of flowers, as I’ve said before. In particular, he took pleasure in that camellia bush, as well as the roses, crocuses, daffodils and irises that the house’s previous owner, Mrs. Elizabeth Sloan, had planted through the decades that she and her husband, a former Burke County agricultural extension agent, had spent at their Morehead Street residence across from the home where Timberley grew up and where we live now. Grandpa also especially liked dahlias and planted them himself in the flowerbeds on the large property, which sits on the crest of one of the higher hills in what is now called the Avery Avenue Downtown Historic District.

I was thinking a lot about Grandpa in February 1988 because he had died in September 1987, less than a month after we had moved from Morganton all the way across the state to Calabash, well, technically Carolina Shores, the last town on the road map before the border in the extreme southeastern corner of our state. That winter Sunday afternoon in coastal Carolina I felt all 270 of the miles separating us from our former home in the foothills and the old folks we loved and missed. But a man needs money to eat—that is, unless he’s a good fisherman and can catch his supper. We’d moved to the coast for new jobs, though, not for the much better fishing.

Now, speaking of Grandpa, he was a fisherman and was known to teach his grandbabies to fish. Two of them whose father also fished still get a line wet regularly as fiftysomething adults—one being a grand-daughter who handles a fly-rod like a pro and tells true fish stories, not lies, about the big trout she reels in. Timberley’s dad didn’t like to fish, so she didn’t grow up wanting to be an expert angler. Still, whenever we fished for fun during our 10 years on the coast, she always caught fish while I rarely did. She could even toss a casting net to catch minnows and shrimp to use for bait. I have trouble baiting a dang hook.

That’s why making our home here in Rutherwood is somewhat ironic. When we bought the house and three-quarters of an acre in the late 1990s, this lush mountain property was fairly dry except for a small, spring-fed creek dividing our yard from a neighbor’s. A drought had been underway at the time, though, and when it ended a year or so into our residency here, wet-weather springs started popping up all over the place—in the front yard, in the back yard, even in the driveway. We joked that having moved from near the famous Green Swamp in Brunswick County, we’d unwittingly bought the only swampland in Watauga County. I’ve since learned that there’s plenty of boggy ground around here, but not like ours.

Our land here in Rutherwood is special—sacred even, if you ask me. At least it’s part of a larger tract that was once thought to be one of the most special places around Boone. In waters that once covered sections of this small hollow—in concrete runs and holding pools—literally millions of brook trout, in particular, were hatched and reared here, then were released into mountain streams throughout the High Country. That’s one reason why I’ve entitled this book Rutherwood; or, Life on the Run—quite literally. Though our little house wasn’t built until the early 1980s, some 40 years after the N.C. Fish Hatchery at Boone closed, four original structures still stand, three as private residences, another as an outbuilding.

CLOCKWISE FROM UPPER LEFT, an oft-run newspaper ad here in the 1930s; a front-page picture of the hatchery office in 1926; a county road survey map of the Rutherwood community in 1936; and a concrete run shown in a state publication in 1936.

Lan O’Loughlin, who sold us this house, and one neighbor offhandedly mentioned to us when we were walking the property that the neighborhood had been built on the old fish hatchery grounds, but that’s all they said, not even that the four older structures up front near the paved state road had served as the superintendent’s residence, office building, two-story garage, and storage shed. All my information on the old hatchery comes from reports of the former N.C. Department of Conservation and Development and from archives of The Watauga Democrat newspaper. Several years ago, Timberley and I spooled through rolls of microfilm at the local library to find much information. I learned recently that all those same papers are now available online through DigitalNC, a project of the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, the UNC-Chapel Hill University Library, and the N.C. Digital Heritage Center.

In 1923, the state legislature appropriated funds to build fish hatcheries in Boone, Fayetteville, Marion, Roaring Gap, and Waynesville. The six-acre Boone hatchery at Rutherwood was the smallest facility in terms of both acreage and valuation, about $16,000 for property and equipment. A front-page article in the December 20, 1923, edition of the Democrat stated the importance to local citizens of welcoming the new hatchery, whose site had not yet been decided: “Bear in mind that when the hatchery gets into operation every stream in the county will be stocked and kept stocked from year to year, and in a short time Watauga county, with her many sparkling and limpid streams, will be one of the greatest and most sought fishing country in the south. Wake up Wataugans, the time for action is here!” Slight exaggeration, maybe?

In the Sept. 4, 1924, edition, Democrat columnist Z.T. Watson praised local property owner A.B. Cook for donating land for the hatchery to the state. Watson also reported on a recent visit to the Rutherwood site: “A number of carpenters and workmen are erecting a beautiful five room bungalow on the site with electric lights installed. The sinking of the reservoir pools etc. are now under construction strictly according to the blue print. When the concrete walks are laid, roads built, and the hatchery stocked with brook or mountain trout, the tourists will flock to this beautiful and fascinating spot to recline under the shade of the trees, breathe the pure air and drink the icy cold water gushing up on every side.” Watson went on to laud the land donation in even more hyperbolic terms, citing Socrates, the Apostle Paul and, yes, even Christ. The writer was afraid that the “generous donation of friend Cook may be forgotten in the years to come,” but Watson assured readers that Mr. Cook’s generosity would be rewarded in heaven.

Timberley just reminded me, as I write this, that the Cook family cemetery lies right over the hill from us and that a neighboring subdivision was named for another Cook gentleman who had developed that particular property not that many years ago, most of the houses having been built in the 20-some years we’ve lived here. Since it’s so durn cold out this morning, I checked and saw that A.B. Cook’s final resting place is actually well tended, disproving the old columnist’s fear that “moss may cover the inscription on his tomb stone, thorns and briars may hide his grave.” Oh, please, Z.T., I’ve got your back here.

From its beginnings in the mid-1920s to its closing in the mid-1940s, the Rutherwood fish hatchery regularly made the Democrat front page, as did the opening and closing of trout season each year. It was really big news—meriting two large, front-page photos—when the old N.C. Fisheries Commission held its May 1926 meeting in Boone and toured the new Rutherwood operation. Through the years, the hatchery grounds were also used for meetings, picnics and fish fries by local groups such as the American Legion, the Young Republicans Club and Spanish-American War veterans. At least one marching band concert was held here, though I’m guessing that the musicians sat or stood in place for the performance.

A Democrat staffer noted in a June 1937 Page One story: “The Rutherwood fish hatchery is rapidly becoming a sort of rendezvous for tourists, particularly those who come to Boone by way of the North Wilkesboro highway, and visitors never tire of watching the giant rainbow and brook trout, which [superintendent] Charles Smathers has tended from the day they were hatched until they have reached the average weight of about three pounds. … His hatchery has become a sort of showplace for the people of this section, and literally millions of fish from his rearing pools have made their way into the streams of this section to delight the anglers and to draw countless visitors to this section of the state.”

At the risk of being even more repetitive, not all of the folks in this section and in Raleigh apparently liked the fish hatchery. As early as December 1933, the local paper reported that state efforts were underway to abandon the fish hatchery, presumably due to an “inadequate water supply.” Local outdoorsmen and organizations like the Watauga Fish and Game Club periodically fought proposed closures through the 1930s into the early 1940s, when operations first were cut in half, then shut down by October 1943. Also, at least three incidents of theft and vandalism—involving diverted water supplies and even poison—were reported by the superintendent in the spring of 1934, resulting in much of the facility’s brook and rainbow trout breeding stock being lost. The crimes remain a mystery.

But don’t fret, neighbors. I’m fairly sure that the statute of limitations on those particular fishy killings has run out. And in cosmic terms, millions of chilly little brookie and rainbow souls swimming into watery existence over three decades must outweigh even three good-sized pools of bloated old breeders going to that great fish fry in the sky. How’s that for poetic (fishing) license, Z.T.?

In his 1999 memoir Brook Trout and the Writing Life, novelist and UNC Greensboro professor Craig Nova writes: “Brook trout, or Salvelinus fontinalis, spend their lives in fresh water, the adults spawning in the fall, usually returning to the same place in a pool or stream where they themselves were spawned. … When I sit on the banks in the evenings of June or July, I take faith in the brook trout’s single-mindedness of purpose, one so profound as to lack (or need) anything like awareness.”

After reading his book a few years ago, I sent Mr. Nova a short email to express my appreciation for his work and to share a bit of our Rutherwood property’s history. “Thanks for your note, which, of course, was much appreciated,” he replied. “I am surprised that there was a hatchery devoted or nearly devoted to brook trout, but then I am often surprised by the way things really are.” He went on to recommend a couple of his novels that include fishing scenes, for brook trout even, stories in which he tries “to invoke that same sense of mystery.” I’m glad I took his advice and read both books.

Certainly, life is a mystery. What will survive under some conditions but not others—whether we’re talking about gorgeous camellias, giant brook trout or even an old fish hatchery whose abandoned grounds become someone’s home—is a question that we want to answer with certainty in every case, but often can’t because too much depends on too many variables to give us folks—in this section, at least—full confidence in the truth we’re always angling over. All that’s left is an awareness—or lack thereof—of one’s faith in a fish tale that can be believed.

Right, Z.T.?