Sutherland today is a scattering of farms in a beautiful valley where Hoskins Fork runs into the North Fork of New River. Sutherland United Methodist Church, often called the most photographed church in the country, still graces the same hillside it has for decades. One would never know that this valley was once the site of a busy town
Alexander Sutherland bought 450 acres of land in 1799. He sold it to his son, Thomas, who built a log cabin on the property. He repaid his father in 1813 and set about extending his holdings. He was appointed a justice of the peace in 1818 at the age of 33. When Watauga County was chopped out of Ashe County in 1849, the line was established to leave all of Thomas Sutherland’s lands in Ashe.
The town continued to grow as settlers moved in. By 1875 there were over 40 homes, three stores, four doctors (Lloyd, Joseph Robinson, nephew Jim Robinson, Clawson and Profitt), W.R. Lovill’s law office, a cheese factory, tanyard, harness and saddle shop, boot and shoe shop, blacksmith shop, grist mill, brickyard and sawmill.
Sutherland School educated the town kids while Sutherland Seminary (opened in 1885) offered advanced study to locals, as well as boarding students. Under the leadership of Professor W.H. Jones, the seminary gained an excellent reputation. Their students were admitted to Trinity College (later Duke University), Emory and Henry College and the University of North Carolina without entrance exams. The seminary burned in 1904 and was never rebuilt.
The honorable Charles F. McKesson visited Sutherland sometime during its heyday and wrote an article about his visit in the Morganton Herald. He titled it “A Pretty Little Town.” The following is an excerpt:
“Sutherland is a pretty little town located on either side of a clear, crystal stream in a beautiful glen in the great old county of Ashe.
“The town takes its name from the Sutherlands, the pioneer settlers in that section a sturdy, honest yeomanry, who in their moral and intellectual manhood partake of the grandeur of their surroundings…. there is the home of that genial gentleman and gifted young lawyer, Will Lovell. We never saw a more open-handed, generous hospitality than was displayed at Sutherland. Between four and five hundred people were fed there on the fat of the land, and no charge was made for either man or beast.
“Under the charge of Prof. W.H. Jones, his accomplished wife, Miss Mamie Weaver and Prof. H.T. Steels, is one of the best schools we ever attended. There were 152 students – boys and girls. The girls are as pretty and as bright as their native mountain lily and as chaste as the dew on the heather….”
Sutherland began to decline as a town around the beginning of the 20th century. Several adventurous souls traveled west to new territories that promised a better life. Others moved closer to the railroad that had come into the county and offered better, cheaper export and import of their goods.
A lovely drive today is N.C. 88 west to Sutherland United Methodist Church. Turn left and travel the wide, fertile valley, then up to Elk Knob, North Carolina’s newest state park. Continue down the other side to Meat Camp and N.C. 194.