While history records events that happened, it is human nature to look back and wonder, “What if…?”
There are two big “what ifs” in the High Country’s history, one over 250 years ago, the other, exactly a century in the past.
The northwestern part of North Carolina almost became Winston- Salem. Here’s how.
In the early part of the 18th century, a group of Germans belonging to a religious group called Unitas Fratrum, now known as the Moravian Church, came to North Carolina to escape persecution. The Earl of Granville, an English nobleman, held title to vast stretches of property in the colony, and offered the Moravians 100,000 acres of land, if they would settle in the region.
In 1752, led by Bishop Augustus Spangenberg, a party of Moravians rode out of their settlement in what is now northern Davie County and began to explore the mountains.
That was on Aug. 25. By the time Spangenberg and his men reached the mountains, winter had set in. They arrived in the future Blowing Rock on Dec. 5, stunned by the severity of the climb up the mountains. By Dec. 14, after nearly freezing to death, the party managed to get totally lost in the Old Fields area of the present Ashe County. They managed to find the New River and follow it north, going as far as White Top mountain in southern Virginia. Though impressed by the richness of the land, the weather clearly discouraged the group.
Basically, these first European “tourists” in the High Country just had bad timing – and an overall bad experience. Reading Spangenberg’s notes on the trip make it sound like something from an adventure movie, full of towering mountains swept by winter storms.
Spangenberg and the rest were happy to end their long journey through western North Carolina. After reviewing all they had seen, they decided to settle on lands near what was then called Dorithea Creek and is now Muddy Creek. There, they began to build their new settlement.
That first settlement gradually grew into the present Winston-Salem, the largest city in northwestern North Carolina.
But what if the Moravians had headed for the mountains first, and experienced Ashe, Watauga or Wilkes in the summer or early fall? This region might have become a major urban center, like Winston-Salem.
Appalachian State University
The other “what if” concerns a historic gathering in Boone in May 1903. After operating a high school called Watauga Academy in Boone for four years, Dr. B.B. Dougherty had won the offer of state funds to build a training school for teachers in the mountains. The meeting brought together Dougherty, who was also superintendent of Watauga County schools, with superintendents from six other counties in the region.
The purpose of the meeting was to decide on a location for the training school.
A number of offers were received from local governments. Boone made a substantial offer, as did Blowing Rock and Globe – now a thinly settled rural area, then a prosperous community. But the commissioners of Ashe County, then the most populated county in the extreme northwest, decided not to make a bid. They decided they did not want such a school in their community, a fairly amazing decision in retrospect.
There was a certain irony in that decision, by the way. Dr. B.B. Dougherty, the founder of Appalachian State, actually got his start teaching in Ashe County. His passion for education was reflected in how he got his first teaching certificate.
In those days, a would-be teacher had to get a certificate from a county school superintendent before going into the classroom. Finding the superintendent gone from his home, Dougherty galloped off in pursuit, took an oral exam while riding next to the official’s buggy, and got the prized certificate. That link, however, was not enough to convince Ashe’s leaders that a state school was what Jefferson needed. In the end, of course, Boone was selected as the site.
And so the “what if” is: how different would this region be if Jefferson or Blowing Rock (or even Globe) was the home of Appalachian State University?