Altapass Orchards combine Stewardship, Enterprise and Cultural Preservation

Date: November 1, 2003

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By Andie Brymer
images/voice_uploads/ContentsApples.gif">When Robert Young marched through what is now known as McKinney Gap in 1780, he never imagined his descendants would grow heirloom apples and preserve Appalachian heritage literally on the ground he trod. Young, an east Tenneseean, was a member of the Overmountain Men, a group of backwoodsmen who defeated the British at the Battle of Kings Mountain in upstate South Carolina.

Today, his five times great-granddaughter Jo Carson has written a play about his exploits in that battle. “What Sweet Lips Can Do” is performed at Altapass Orchard, a farm owned by the playwright’s cousins Kit Trubey and Bill Carson and his wife Judy Carson. The play, which tells the story of the Overmountain Men, is just one way the Altapass Foundation is preserving Appalachian culture and protecting the natural environment. The foundation also sponsors storytelling, visits by folk artists and naturalist, mountain music and herb, wetland and butterfly gardens.

Trubey and the Carsons formed the non-profit foundation in 2002 as an outgrowth of their work in the commercial apple orchard. The orchard itself is a good example of a commercial venture with a mission.

A vision of preservation

In the 1990s, Trubey, a real estate agent, learned Altapass was for sale. She quickly purchased the orchard that runs for roughly two miles alongside the Blue Ridge Parkway. She never planned to farm the orchard. Instead, she wanted to save it from development. Not protected by zoning, the acreage was coveted by builders envisioning condominiums. Since then, Trubey has sold the land on the other side of the parkway to the National Park Service. Trubey’s brother Bill Carson and wife Judy Carson are partners in the orchard business while she owns the land.

The partnership occurred after Bill Carson, a retired aerospace engineer, asked just how hard could it be to grow apples. Trubey jokes that the family purchased the book “How To Grow Apples.” They soon got their comeuppance and have since hired Roy Buchanan as field manager.

With Buchanan tending 3,000 trees, the trio has been able to focus on preserving the area’s culture.

“We realized there was still a lot more to preserve than apples and the view,” Trubey said. “People bring us their stories, pictures.”

Stories like the flood that turned valleys into rivers and safely deposited an infant, on a mattress, in the branch of a tree. After the waters receded, the parents were quickly able to rescue the child. Another story details the life of a mountain man who had 45 children. According to the locals, his one legal wife and two common-law wives lived near one another in peace. The children and their descendants have continued the good will.

“We’re trying to capture as much as we can before it’s gone,” Trubey said. “If we don’t capture their stories, they’re going to be legend instead of fact.”

Recording the stories is a race against the clock. Most of the tellers are between 70 and 90 years old. The Carsons and Trubey hope Appalachian scholars will step in before it’s too late.

Local support for Altapass

The orchard is attracting locals like Robert Carter Biddix. Biddix visited on a late summer Saturday afternoon. Clad in overalls, he had just come from putting dahlias on his wife Ruby’s grave. Biddix talked about having worked in the Atlapass apple-packing house as a teenager. As an adult, he traded that job for one on the Clinchfield Railroad which tracks ran just two miles east.

When Trubey purchased the orchard, many local residents stopped by filled with curiosity and maybe fear. They wanted to know what would happen to the orchard. When they learned the plan, the family was warmly welcomed into the community.

While the Carson family originates in east Tennessee, as a young man Bill and Trubey’s father moved from the hills of the volunteer state to Indiana in search of work. They are not the only ones at the orchard with a northern accent. Altapass’ visitors fall into three categories, long time residents, summer residents and tourist.
“Before this there hasn’t been a place where all three have gotten together,” Bill Carson said. “Nobody’s money buys them a front row seat.”

The foundation hosts three summer picnics annually to gather the three groups together. Altapass roasts a pig and guests bring side dishes. Carson describes the gatherings as a “good, old fashioned covered dishes.”

Stewardship and good apples

Not all of the orchard’s summer visitors arrive in cars. The monarchs fly in to the orchard. An abundance of milkweed, the only plant the monarch will lay eggs on, draws the yellow and black winged creatures. Some of the chrysalises, still attached to the plant, are taken inside to terrariums to stay on view until the butterfly hatches and is released.

While the butterflies make their temporary home in the orchard, some of the land’s former owners did not value the surrounding community enough to live in it. With absentee owners, the trees went five to 15 years without pruning. Today, the trees are cared for by five year round employees, manager Buchanan and Carson. At peak season, 29 people fill full and part time positions at the orchard and gift shop. Some of the people who pick the apples also work in the nearby Christmas tree industry.
The orchard, located on an incline with several microclimates, is not an ideal place to grow apples, according to Carson. The trees will produce approximately 50 percent fewer apples this year because of heavy rains. Carson estimates he uses one fourth the chemicals of most commercial orchards.

While larger orchards pick unripe apples and store them in coolers, Altapass apples are picked ripe. Most are sold at the orchard within a week. The 85-year old trees bear fruit that is considered heirloom commercial. It was developed before the days of cold storage.

“They are bred for taste. They’re not grocery store apples,” Carson said.

Newer orchards usually contain only a handful of varieties. At Altapass, diversity thrives among the 40 varieties including grimes golden, Virginia beauty,
Stayman-Winesap and York. The apples ripen between July and Thanksgiving.

At 85, the trees are old and produce less than a younger tree. Carson and staff graft cuttings from the trees for planting though replacing the entire orchard would be cost prohibitive. Grafts are available to the public free of charge. Because the trees will likely outlive Trubey and the Carsons, they look to the Altapass Foundation to care for the orchard after they are gone.

A legacy of land and independence

Preservation has become one theme for Altapass while coincidence is another. When Trubey purchased the orchard, she did not know her forefather had marched over a trail leading through the orchard. Later, the trio would hear the tale of 62-year-old Robert Young fighting with the Overmountain Men. The man called both his wife and his black powder musket “sweet lips.” It was with this musket that Young shot Major Patrick Ferguson atop Kings Mountain. Some historians believe that patriot victory turned the tide of the Revolutionary War, paving the way for colonial victory.

Only when Carson told this story to his aunt did he learn Young was his grandfather five generations removed. Then Carson and Trubey realized something more than conservation had pulled them to Altapass and that same force will keep them there.

Andie Leatherman Brymer is a staff writer at the Kings Mountain Herald. Her grandfather, Belton Leatherman, was the first commercial apple grower in western Lincoln County. Her father Dale Leatherman, uncle Lewis Leatherman and cousin Johnny Leatherman continued the tradition until the mid-1990s.

Joseph Brymer is a freelance photographer from Lincolnton, N.C. He specializes in photographs that capture the natural beauty of western North Carolina.

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