Helen Cable Vance and the North Shore Historical Association
by Alan Jabbour
Together with my wife, Karen Singer Jabbour, and two colleagues, Philip E. Coyle of Western Carolina University and Paul Webb of TRC Environmental Corporation, I undertook a study in 2004 of the cultural tradition of cemetery decoration, sometimes known as Decoration Day. The study focused on the North Carolina counties close to Great Smoky Mountains National Park (particularly Swain, Jackson, and Graham Counties) and on the North Shore region of the Park itself, comprising the North Carolina region of the park north of Fontana Lake. The study report became part of the North Shore Road Environmental Impact Statement, which explored the environmental and cultural impacts of building a proposed road through the North Shore region of the park.
The study led to the report being published separately in 2005 and as part of the larger Environmental Impact Statement in 2006. But my wife and I continued to pursue the topic, and in the spring of 2010 The University of North Carolina Press published our fully illustrated book Decoration Day in the Mountains. The report and book represent the first full-length documentation and analysis of a cultural tradition that is to this day a cultural mainstay of Appalachian North Carolina and that extends across the Upland South from Virginia and North Carolina west and southwest to the Ozarks.
The folk custom of Decoration Day became the cultural underpinning for a major protest in the 1970s. A large number of families had been removed from the area that came to be known as the North Shore in 1943 when Fontana Dam was completed. Some were directly impacted by the rising waters of Fontana Lake. Others were indirectly impacted, since the lake covered most of a road that had run along the north side of the Little Tennessee River before the dam was built. But a formal agreement arrived at by the U.S. Department of the Interior (on behalf of the National Park Service), the Tennessee Valley Authority, the State of North Carolina, and Swain County provided that after World War II had concluded, a new road would be built through the region, which was now becoming part of the national park. The new road would provide, for the people removed from their homes, access again to the old homesites.
What is more, it would provide access to 27 cemeteries that, according to their cultural traditions, should be properly cleaned and decorated annually and visited by relatives and friends of the deceased in a religious service in the cemetery known as a decoration (or Decoration Day). In the years after the war, portions of the promised road were indeed built. But by the 1960s the construction ceased at a point just beyond a tunnel under a mountain ridge. This struck many people as odd, and someone named it the Road to Nowhere. The name has stuck ever since.
On Sunday, October 17, 1976, a reunion of former North Shore residents was organized at the Deep Creek Campground, just inside the park boundary not far from Bryson City. The Smoky Mountain Times reported that “450 former Fontana Dam area residents” gathered for this first reunion, and “plans were being made for a follow-up reunion next year, according to organizers Helen C. Vance and Ruth V. Hicks.” At the reunion, conversation reportedly turned to the fact that no decorations had been held in most North Shore cemeteries since the expulsion in 1943 and 1944. By the spring of 1978, the impulse turned to a reality. Helen Vance and her sister Mildred Johnson, with the help of some friends, organized a decoration at Cable Cemetery, and they arranged for four small boats to transport people across Fontana Lake.
Henry Posey joined Helen Vance and her sisters as a key member of the core group. The first North Shore decoration, at Cable Cemetery, was a great success; so was the second, which went to Proctor Cemetery on Hazel Creek. Hundreds of people participated, and there was intense media coverage. Thus was a cultural movement born. The leaders soon found themselves negotiating with Boyd Evison, the park superintendent, on a variety of major issues. A schedule was devised for decorations at various North Shore cemeteries, and the park agreed to provide boats to transport the visitors for a full summer of Sunday decorations. Pushed some more, the park began supplying vehicles to transport participants—especially the elderly and infirm—up the long trails that lay ahead once participants had debarked on the North Shore. Park staff became active in maintaining the cemeteries, which had suddenly come into the public limelight.
The original reunion at Deep Creek took place in the year of the nation’s Bicentennial celebrations, when much attention was being given to the historical and cultural roots of American communities. Helen Vance has said that the Bicentennial, despite its emphasis on local history and culture, was not a direct influence on the North Shore cemetery decoration movement. But Eddie Marlowe, who attended the early decorations on the North Shore, offered an observation revealing how much the idea of celebrating one’s roots was in the air: “I think that it’s important for people to know your heritage. I remember about that same time, maybe a little bit later, Alex Haley come up with the book Roots, and how he traced his ancestors back to Africa and how that opened up so much for him, and it did the same for us here in the Smoky Mountains.”
In 1978 the public stir about the new decorations on the North Shore led the North Carolina Humanities Committee (now the North Carolina Humanities Council) to fund public presentations on North Shore cemeteries and cemetery decorations, with the stipulation that there be a non-profit organization to receive the funds. So the movement created a formal organization called the North Shore Cemetery Association, choosing for its name a new term representing the entire region north of Fontana Lake.
The movement matured in the 1980s. Its name oscillated between “North Shore Cemetery Association” and “North Shore Historical Association,” reflecting the broadening context in which it saw its labors. In 1986 it launched a newsletter called Fontana, edited by Ruth Chandler (joined later by Willa Mae Trull), which explored facets of North Shore family and community history, including personal memoirs of North Shore life. According to Helen Vance, the number of North Shore cemeteries being decorated grew till about 1980, when it reached a level that has been maintained with little change up to the present day. Another sign of the maturing of the movement was the creation of the North Shore Road Association, which under Linda Hogue’s leadership has focused on advocacy for building the long-sought-after road.
The annual schedule for North Shore decorations is widely distributed throughout the region, and decorations are attended both by immediate family members and by friends, well-wishers, and others from the region and beyond. A core group of active members attends multiple decorations, including not only organizers like Helen Vance and her sisters Mildred Johnson and Eleanor Rhinehart but also several long-term movement organizers and a regular group of musicians. Helen Vance’s husband Harry Vance, a Baptist minister, sometimes attends and delivers the message.
Helen Cable Vance since 1977 has been a shaping and guiding force of the North Shore Revolution. That revolution has in turn reshaped the history of western North Carolina in a number of ways. The most visible accomplishment of the revolution has been the elaborate system the National Park Service arranged for shuttling pilgrims across Fontana Lake to the various debarking points on the North Shore, enabling the pilgrims to decorate the graves of their ancestors and relatives. But the impact of the revolution may be traceable in broader cultural ways. The tradition of cemetery decoration is diffused across a wide swath of the Upland South, but the tradition seems to be practiced more widely, more conservatively, and with greater devotion in the areas of western North Carolina just east of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There is evidence that the involvement of the tradition in a regionally (and indeed nationally) visible protest movement has helped reinforce the region’s sense of the contemporary relevance and importance of this folk tradition to life in the region.
The North Shore Revolution has been a collective effort of many people. Like many other leaders, Helen Vance has always envisioned and presented the effort as a collective effort, and she has taken care to involve many people in the work at every stage. Thus when one attends a North Shore decoration, it seems that the stages of the event unfold effortlessly by collective cooperation and assent. But someone had to invite a speaker to offer the religious message for a Decoration Day event. Someone had to be sure that there were plenty of extra flowers so that some other participant could be enlisted to distribute flowers on every grave. Someone had to make sure that musicians could attend with instruments and that hymn books were brought along. Someone had to make advance plans to take care of the service at the second cemetery when there were two cemeteries on the same decoration trip. Someone had to work with the National Park Service regarding any problems or special requests that might have arisen. And someone had to help newcomers, from the Jabbours at the 2004 Proctor decoration to members of the press writing or filming a feature on the North Shore decorations. Generally speaking, for the last thirty years the person orchestrating the collective effort has been Helen Vance.
Helen Cable Vance was born in Proctor on the North Shore in 1926. She thus was a teenager when the North Shore removal was set into motion in 1942-43, and she has many clear recollections about those days, including memories of meetings between her father and Tennessee Valley Authority representatives to discuss the removal. Her father worked for Ritter Lumber Company, and her mother was a schoolteacher. The Cable family is widespread in the area and has connections to Cades Cove on the Tennessee side of the Smokies, from which many pioneer families crossed the mountain into North Carolina after the Cherokee removal in the early 19th century. The North Shore cemetery with which the family had the closest associations is Cable Cemetery. Two younger sisters have been helpers in the work of the North Shore Cemetery Association, Mildred Cable Johnson and Eleanor Cable Rhinehart. Mildred has made a particularly important contribution by serving as the movement’s resident photographer. Her important photographs document thirty years of the work of the North Shore Cemetery Association.
The North Shore movement has taken the form of a short revolution followed by a long consolidation. The revolution took about three years (roughly 1977-79), after which the remaining major innovation was the launching of the North Shore Cemetery Association’s newsletter, Fontana, in 1986. The consolidation period has lasted for the remainder of the thirty-year history. When the revolution was complete, some opponents hinted that as soon as the revolutionaries—namely, the generation who were born on the North Shore—passed away, the movement would subside. But the North Shore decorations are packed with people of all ages, including children and young adults in great numbers, and there are many signs that the movement has succeeded in transferring energy to the next generations, who were not born on the North Shore but nevertheless have acquired a deep feeling of connection to it.
Leading a revolution calls for different skills from consolidating it into a stable, ongoing enterprise. Leading the revolution demands radical thinking that imagines the unimaginable, unshakable self-confidence, and the knack for making everyone see and embrace what you envision. Consolidating the revolution into an ongoing enterprise with staying power, on the other hand, takes a steady hand and a sense of what will prove a balanced and productive course, along with diplomatic skills to manage a thousand daily issues with movement allies, adversaries, and powerful institutions like the National Park Service. A key reason for the successes of the movement is that Helen Vance possesses all these leadership skills.
Helen Vance, together with all the others who have helped lead the North Shore movement, are expressions of a larger tradition of cemetery heroes woven deeply into the cultural fabric of western North Carolina. She and her sister Mildred Johnson led the first decoration on the North Shore, and more than thirty years later they are still organizing and managing the effort. The magnitude of the accomplishment tempts us to regard it as unique in the history of western North Carolina—and in certain respects it is unique. But it takes nothing away from the accomplishment to say that Helen Vance belongs in the pantheon of cemetery and Decoration Day heroes who have arisen as visionary caretakers of the rural community cemeteries—governed and managed by no formal organizations or legal structures but simply by voluntary community consent and spiritual investment—that are so culturally characteristic of western North Carolina.
Alan Jabbour is a folklorist who has documented North Carolina folk cultural traditions since the 1960s, when he was a graduate student at Duke University. He and his wife, Karen Singer Jabbour, have been studying the traditions of cemetery decoration, as well as the cemeteries in which the decorations take place, since 2004. Their book Decoration Day in the Mountains: Traditions of Cemetery Decoration in the Southern Appalachians (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010) has not ended their fascination with these important cultural traditions.
Original publication citation:
Jabbour, Alan. “Helen Cable Vance and the North Shore Historical Association.” North Carolina Folklore Journal 57.2 (Fall-Winter 2010): 22-28.