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Photographs bring to life the history of scenic, storied Sylva
By Staff Writer   - 09/11/2008

Asheville Citizen-Times

There is no town in Western North Carolina more photogenic than Sylva, with great shooting angles from the top of Courthouse Hill straight up Main Street and vice versa. Built in 1913-14, the courthouse, where many a man heard the death sentence imposed on him, still stands. It is, however, no longer a courthouse but a museum.

Probably along with Biltmore House, the old Jackson County Courthouse has been the most photographed building in WNC.

A book has just come out that’s filled with pictures of Sylva dating from 1895 and written by Lynn Hotaling, editor of The Sylva Herald. Hotaling had much help from Rachel Phillips, Hattie Hilda Allison and Dorris Beck, who rounded up the old photographs and information that make the book hold your attention. It is an unusual book, written with no text other than the captions on the pictures, but it tells the story of my hometown, and that of thousands of others.

Hotaling was born in Chickamauga, Ga., moved to Jackson County at age 20 to attend Western Carolina University and has worked for The Herald for 24 years. She was once a student in a journalism class I taught at Western Carolina. I am proud of her because of her career and this interesting book.

It is filled with great photos that show the passing years of Sylva, much like those of any town. One is of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in an open car being driven up Main Street in Sylva, before a throng on Sept. 6, 1936, after he had dedicated the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He is the only sitting president who has visited Sylva.

Sylva was named for a wayfaring Dane who appeared in town in the late 19th century and worked as a handyman for Gen. E.R. Hampton, who housed Sylva in his home for a month. When time came to apply for a post office, Hampton asked his small daughter, Mae, what the town should be named, and she, who had taken a shine to the handyman, answered “Sylva,” and so it was named.

There are many pictures of great interest in the book, including one in front of the courthouse of the statue of a Confederate soldier, who has stood sentinel over the town since Sept. 18, 1915. There’s another of 50 or more Confederate veterans posing before the statue and a pre-military photo of recruits for the U. S. Army taken before the Ritz Theater in 1942. The marquee in that photo advertises the movie “Sergeant York, with Gary Cooper and Joan Leslie.”

An early 1900s photo shows women in long dresses working with shovels on a dirt road near their homes. Everyone did his part — or hers, as the case may be — in those days. A.J. “Jonah” Dills is pictured in 1899 after organizing the Sylva Bucket Brigade to fight frequent fires.

There are photos of Dr. John R. Brinkley, who treated men for impotency with goat glands; and of early musicians, fiddler and banjo player aunt Samantha Bumgarner and Harry Cagle, who went to Del Rio, Texas, to fiddle on Dr. Brinkley’s coast-to-coast radio broadcasts.

In the book, you can see pictures of quilting parties and baptisms in Scotts Creek. A 1910 picture shows 10 ox teams pulling a huge boiler through Sylva to the Cullowhee Normal School.

One picture is of the 1914 Ford that Sylva’s J.S. Higdon, a blacksmith and the first car dealer west of Asheville, drove up the 107 steps to the courthouse to boost car sales.

I cannot remember when I have enjoyed a book more. This one brought back a million memories, all of them good, of growing up in Jackson County. To see pictures of those I knew who are long gone or aged, as I am, was wonderful.

Congratulations, Lynn, you did a great job.

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