Charles Dudley Warner was a celebrated essayist when he made a foray into the Blue Ridge Mountains on horseback in 1888. Beginning in the genteel village of Abingdon, Virginia, Warner wended his way south to Asheville, North Carolina, then back to the rail depot of Bristol, Tennessee. He found no favorable comparison between these towns and the premier commercial center of Hartford, Connecticut, where he lived. So he filled his journal with Yankee disdain in the sarcastic style of his Hartford neighbor Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain).
I recently visited the area with Warner’s book in hand. His preoccupation with the crude manners of mountain folk blinded him to the charms of the region and distorted his forecast of what the future held. No where is this more obvious than in his comments on the towns of Cranberry and Boone, North Carolina.
Cranberry Forge was a boom town by virtue of its lucrative iron mines, which had been vital to munition factories of the Confederacy. By the time Warner arrived, Andrew Carnegie had taken over the iron operations and brought many of the refinements of Philadelphia society to its employees. Warner stayed at a company-owned hotel, whose “good taste, comfort, and quiet elegance are not appreciated after all. There is this to be said about Philadelphia,” he wrote, “wherever its influence extends there will be found comfortable lodgings and an undeniably exquisite cuisine” (Warner, On Horseback, 43).
On the strength of his pleasant hotel stay, Warner praised Cranberry Forge as “the first wedge of civilization fairly driven into the northwest mountains of North Carolina” (On Horseback, 42).
Contrast this to his comments on the town of Boone, which Warner estimated to have about 250 residents. The county seat, Boone had a tumble-down courthouse and a couple of taverns, which served primarily to lodge attorneys and jurors who attended court sessions. Warner complained that the tavern where he stayed was infested with flies and offered no drink stronger than buttermilk. “There is nothing special to be said about Boone,” he wrote. “We were anxious to reach it; we were glad to leave it” (On Horseback, 38).
So how have these two towns fared? The iron mines of Cranberry played out and the forge closed in 1930. Without employment, people moved away and the post office closed. Ruins of that world-class hotel were swallowed up by kudzu long ago. Cranberry now consists of a couple dozen houses along a two-lane mountain road. When we visited, we couldn’t even find a city limit sign.
On the other hand, Boone now has a population of nearly twenty thousand people and is the home of Appalachian State University, with an enrollment that essentially doubles the town’s population. A bustling center of tourism and trade, Boone is a vigorous urban center of the Blue Ridge.
What a difference 130 years can make!
Hubris is never so deceptive as when someone ventures to foretell the future. Absent any evidence to the contrary, a prognosticator can seize upon a casual observation to speak with great confidence about things to come. Witness Charles Dudley Warner. On the basis of two nights’ stay at local inns, he boldly predicted the fortunes of the mountain hamlets where they were located. One can’t help but wonder if he would’ve had a much different outlook if he had been served a moldy biscuit at Cranberry or a fine wine at Boone. One can only guess.