Mermaids, in Marshall?


When I moved to Madison County in 1973, Marshall was a busy place. Three car dealerships, two grocery stores, two hardware stores, the Sunnyside and the Shadyside florists, the library, people lining the counter at Doc Niles's pharmacy waiting for coffee or biscuits and gravy, and an assortment of people attached to the courthouse - lawyers, deputies, criminals, families. Parades were held on Christmas, the 4th of July, and Memorial Day. The town was full and alive and rich with activity. I caught a Greyhound bus in front of the Old Rock Cafe and took it to Knoxville to meet a friend. It was a main route.

By 1983, the town was dying. Businesses were closing and buildings were boarded up. I had opened a studio downtown, Main Street Studios, on the third floor in what is now the Flow Art Gallery and eventually moved into the space. The town would empty by five o'clock, the quiet only punctuated by the regular arrivals of the Norfolk Southern train. As the 1980s passed into the 1990s, Marshall slowed even more, the town abandoned by county residents who now did their shopping, and hanging out, on the Bypass or in Weaverville. The solitary parade at Christmas was attended by fewer people every year. Marshall resembled small, rural Southern towns across the entire region, passed by in a societal rush to modernity.

New people began arriving in the 2000s with money, ideas, and energy. Buildings were purchased and renovated into apartments, offices and galleries. Music, art, weddings and parades brought people into town who hadn't been there for years, or ever. It appears Marshall has been reborn, albeit in ways many long-time residents wouldn't have predicted. Last Friday evening at the Mermaid Parade, there were more people in town than I've seen in many years. Businesses were making money, families were having fun, people visiting, music playing, it was silly and delightful and a precise definition of the word community.

I've heard some born-in-county folk and older newcomers say they just don't like what Marshall has become, what with all the tattoos and dreadlocks and beer. They wish it had stayed like it was and one can sense resentment among certain people. It's too bad, that attitude, and I hate to hear it. The reality is the town was near dead and little effort was being made to revive it. But that's not the point, what is regrettable is that people are missing the opportunity to participate in the rebirth of their town as a destination for something besides court. 







Madison County Music


87 year old Ralph Lewis at the Fiddlers of Madison County show at
the Madison County Arts Council this past Saturday.


                                                           11 year old Rhiannon Ramsey, the youngest of Madison's fiddlers.

Hero - Kate


Kate, Halloween Night, Marshall, 2014


Kate, as most of you know, is my daughter, "Child #2" in family speak. Now, everyone believes their child is the most incredible child ever was, and that's how it should be. But I just have to say that Kate is truly extraordinary and I couldn't be prouder of the young woman she has become.

Dog Daze


Dog Daze, Marshall, Madison County, NC 2012

Born and raised in the suburbs, I don’t believe I had ever heard the term “Dog Days” until I moved to Madison County and heard farmers speak of them. They, of course, refer to the hot and sultry days of summer, usually in July and August, which around here meant tobacco time.

But according to Wikipedia, the term originated with the Greeks. The Romans would sacrifice a “red” dog every spring to appease Sirius – the Dog Star – which they believed to be the cause of the hot weather. The Dog Days were widely believed to be an evil time when the sea boiled, dogs grew mad, and men suffered from fevers and hysterics.

Well, my hometown of Marshall, in its post-tobacco present, has added a new twist to the definition and Friday, August 8 at 5 pm, marks the 7th Annual Dog Daze event in town. The event features music, food, and art walks with the main attraction being the Parade of Dogs from the island to downtown, which begins at 6:30.

Dog Daze is one of many quirky, playful and artistic happenings that seem to have overtaken Marshall in recent years. Scores of new people, bars, music, bakeries, bicycles and galleries have brought new life to our town, which had been languishing and mostly vacant for the previous three decades. There are people in the county who do not like the changes and I can understand their difficulty accepting what appears to be a foreign invasion. But evolution is never easy or smooth and if communities are going to thrive, evolution is inevitable and should be welcomed.  


Who Would've Thunk It


Mens Room, Ingles, Marshall Bypass, 2014

So, I stopped at Ingles the other day, needing a few groceries and needing to pee, not an unusual combination of needs for me. There is something at Ingles that seems to cause my bladder to relax. Let's just say I'm familiar with the mens room.

Imagine my surprise and joy when I entered the hallowed chamber and was greeted by a colorful and warming bouquet of fresh flowers. My bladder loved it and, at my age, having a happy bladder is both welcoming and occasionally vital. They offered a sweet fragrance and an unsaid message that said, "We value you and want your stay at our store to be cheerful and bright."

Now, I've never known the Ingles mens room, even at the old Ingles across the street, to be exceptionally nasty or repulsive. I've been in some bad mens rooms in my day - a memory from a bus station in Mexico comes to mind - and Ingles has always been better than that. An unflushed toilet here, an overflowing waste can there, but nothing truly egregious. Rather, I would have described them as utilitarian, drab, dark, not places you necessarily want to linger.

But flowers, man, over the top. I envision men meeting there to chat over coffee, admiring the surroundings, combing their hair and checking their smile. Who would've thunk it. Certainly, not me.


Seldom Scene - Everett Barnett


Everett Barnett, Marshall, North Carolina 1984

I didn't know Mr. Barnett well at all. But when I lived in my studio space in downtown Marshall in the early 1980s, I would often see him and we would speak. I do know he was a loved and respected part of a community that is not noted for its racial or ethnic diversity. He lived downtown, just off of Hill Street. He served our country during World War II as a member of the 34th Naval Construction Battalion, the famous Seabees, whose motto was Construimus, Batuimus - We Build, We Fight. The Battalion participated in much of the fighting in the Pacific Theatre during the war and the shell casing he is holding is from the invasion of Okinawa in 1945. That battle was one of the most hard fought and bitter fights of the War as Japan was desperately defending its homeland. It was instrumental in bringing the war to an end. I wish I knew more of Everett Barnett and would love for readers to share stories of him.


Marshall Metal


Jamie Paul, Josie and Greg Moser of the metal band, Crook, in downtown Marhsall, 2014

They handed out free earplugs at the drink table.
A sure sign it would be louder than anything the old man had ever heard.
It was.

For him, a beat that didn’t translate into what he thought of as music.
Shrieks and wails and notes held maybe a might too long.
The crowd loved it. What did he know?

Left, Josie Mosser, Right, Greg Mosser, of Crook.

Guests on American Bandstand would have said,
“It’s okay, but you can’t dance to it.”
I might give it a five out of ten, the old man thought.

But the others, oh, the others.
Mesmerized, heads bobbing, eyes glassed.
Hands clutching warm PBR, as if a modern communion.

Marshall, 2014.

Marshall, 2014.

It was all so new to the man and
He wasn’t sure he liked it.
Still, there was no denying the power, or the appeal to some.

He thought, how could this be in this small town?
Legendary home to ballads and old-time and bluegrass.
A place where the sidewalks roll up at nightfall.

Hot Mess Monster playing in downtown Marshall, 2014.

It’s evolution, he thought.
New people, new ideas, changing times.  
And I’ve got nothing against change.

But, what did he know?


Seldom Scene - Sorely Missed

I lived in Marshall in the early 1980s on the top floor of what is now the Flow Gallery building. It was not an easy time. Newly separated, a young son, and little money and less work coming from my attempts at being a photographer/artist. It was empty warehouse space back then, not the elegant apartments there now. Unheated and unplumbed with rudimentary wiring. Just a big open space. 

Main Street, Marshall, 1983.

It was a lonely time, filled with trips to the dark holes that punctuate my life. Guilt. Insecurity. Questioning. Sleepless nights spent writing or in my jury-rigged darkroom. Sometime visits from a similar searching soul would only heighten the aloneness in the morning when she left. Cold. Or hot. Never just right. I did make some nice photographs from that perch. Thank you Gene Smith.

Marshall was visibly slowing then. Boarded up buildings along the entire stretch of town. Any attempts at new businesses quickly closed. The old stores, the mainstays of the town that had been there forever, were still open, but did only a shadow of the business they once did. Court, and its ancillaries, were the only growth industries.

In the morning I’d walk to the post office along Back Street. Past the jail, train tracks and river on my right, the back ends of buildings hovering above me, like a trap ready to spring. "Why here?" I thought. An old question, never far from the surface. 

George Penland, Marshall, 1983.

A few more steps and I’m at the back of Penland & Sons store. George Penland, one of the Sons, former mayor, and late husband to Barbara, was out on the stoop feeding the stray cats that lived behind the store. They served a purpose, George knew, rats and whatnot, so he kept them fed. George was cheerful - I remember him as always cheerful - and happy to see me on what was a fine spring morning. We talked, but I don’t recall what was spoken. I do remember  thinking this moment of friendliness to me and kindness to cats is one answer to the question of "why here?"