History & Nostalgia

Avery History Behind Bars, on the Rails, and in the Square in 2022

By Elizabeth Baird Hardy

Avery County may be the youngest county in North Carolina, but it has a lively history. The Avery County Museum and the Historical Association are both thriving and looking forward to helping Avery County residents and visitors learn more about the past with a variety of opportunities to experience history.

The Avery County Museum is housed in the former Avery County Jail, next to the county courthouse, in Newland. Originally, the jail housed both prisoners and the jailer and his family. The jailer’s wife often prepared the meals for those who were incarcerated on the building’s second floor. In 1976, as part of America’s nationwide bicentennial celebration, the closed jail was re-born as the county museum. Over the past decades, the museum has continued to grow and change, adding and updating exhibits and resources as it helps preserve the past of a new county with an old story to tell.

In 2007, the museum added a very special building to the complex, the 1917 Linville Depot of the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railroad, fondly known as Tweetsie. The depot had been used as a residence and fishing cabin for many years before being relocated to the museum grounds and returned to its early twentieth-century glory as the generally recognized “nicest depot” on the line.  In 2014 the depot was joined by Caboose 505, which was transported to the site and has now been completely and lovingly restored. Both the depot and the caboose are once again open for visitors, after being closed for pandemic protocols, so it is easy to step back in time to the days when the railroad was an integral part of transportation, life, and culture in our region. 

Visitors can learn about the county’s railroad history, as well as a multitude of other historical topics as they explore the caboose and depot, along with the many exhibits in the museum, which are expanded and rotated often so that guests who have visited before will always find something new. This summer, according to board member Tense Banks, who has been serving with the museum for over 25 years, the refurbished music room will be offering new interactive multimedia experiences. The museum has an extensive collection of artifacts and materials connected to local celebrities LuluBelle and Scotty Wiseman, who were popular radio and film performers. The room’s new features will allow visitors to enjoy and understand these various media.  Aneda Johnson, chair of the Avery County Historical Society, notes that the new and improved music room will celebrate the variety of music that is woven into the county’s history, including the music of worship. In addition, there will be exhibits on the county’s current musical voices, including Jason Burleson, who has played with the popular bluegrass band Blue Highway for nearly three decades, and the award-winning Darrin and Brooke Aldridge, who have just released their ninth album.

Outstanding local music will also be at the center of the popular Avery County Heritage Festival, which will fill the town square with craftspeople, exhibitors, genealogists, authors, performers, and others celebrating and demonstrating a wide variety of historical topics. The Heritage Festival, which will be held June 25 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., is free to the public and will include plenty of entertainment, such as a full lineup of musicians and cloggers, along with the popular family history tables, vendors, and demonstrators.

Tense Banks notes that this year’s festival will have even more genealogist tables so that visitors can trace their families from the area. The museum’s growing genealogy library is also an excellent resource for those who want to learn more about their family history. Everyone is invited to this vibrant and beloved event, and there is still time to participate or volunteer.

Aneda Johnson, whose family has been in the area since the 1800s, has a love for history and stresses that, “it’s so important to know your roots,” while recognizing that understanding the past is an on-going quest. “I am still learning,” she says, stressing that there is always something more to learn.

One of the most important ways that anyone can learn more about Avery County’s history is by visiting the museum.  In addition to the exhibits, visitors can discover resources in the bookstore and genealogy library. As Tense Banks observes, it is vitally important to learn about history: “In order to know who are, we have to know where we came from,” to know what the people of the past “sacrificed to make us who we are.”

Those who want to learn more about Avery County’s past, while helping others learn, are encouraged to join the Museum’s Board or to volunteer at the museum. Especially with both buildings open and the growing genealogy library, volunteers are a valuable resource who keep the Avery County Museum open to public.

The Avery County Museum is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and on Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. In the winter months, the museum is open on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Since the museum is staffed by volunteers, it is often a good idea to call first. To keep up with events at the museum, check out the Avery County Genealogical Society Facebook page, call the museum at 828-733-7111 or visit Averycountymuseum.org.

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