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Hard times in the mountains

Andrews, North Carolina, is nestled among the Nantahala mountains in the western corner of the state.  

'People in that area
have been cheated
out of everything'


In this story:

Locals forced off their land

A culture of distrust for government

A cordial relationship with federal agents

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ANDREWS, North Carolina (CNN) -- When Andrews was thick with people from the media looking for new angles to the Eric Rudolph manhunt, there were a number of media reports about militia and anti-government activity in the area.

Western North Carolina's geographical and social isolation made it attractive to members of right-wing extremist groups, and their computer bulletin boards and shortwave radio broadcasts were aflame with news of the manhunt.

One newspaper reported that leaflets also were distributed in Andrews that referred to FBI and ATF agents as "jack-booted thugs" and asked, "How long will we tolerate the presence of these brutal tyrants?"

  RESOURCES
 

And in November 1998 eight shots were fired into the Southeast Bomb Task Force's compound here, grazing the skull of an FBI agent. The culprit turned out to be a local man who was drunk and with no apparent connection to Rudolph other than his dislike for the people who had overrun Andrews.

Historians say that if western North Carolinians have chips on their shoulders, they have a right.

"People in that area have been cheated out of everything, starting with the Indians and continuing with the white settlers," said Jane Brown, an instructor in history and anthropology at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee.

The Cherokees had huge holdings in the Carolinas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia, Alabama and the Virginias dating to the pre-Colonial era. But the advance of white settlers had greatly reduced their holdings by the 1830s when gold was discovered in what is now western North Carolina and northern Georgia.

In one of the most infamous episodes in U.S. history, members of the Cherokee Nation were persuaded in 1835 to sign the Treaty of New Echota that ceded all Cherokee lands east of the Mississippi River to the U.S. government for $5 million.

A majority of the nation's members repudiated the treaty, however, and fought it in the courts. Although the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the nation's favor, state officials and President Andrew Jackson refused to enforce the decision, and 7,000 soldiers under Gen. Winfield Scott were sent to evict the Indians.

Fifteen thousand Cherokees were forcibly removed from their lands and sent, most of them on foot, to Oklahoma. About 4,000 of them died along what came to be known as the Trail of Tears.

Despite the area’s scenic beauty, early settlers found it difficult to farm on the mountainous terrain.  

Locals forced off their land

White settlers, many of them descendants of the Scottish and Irish pioneers who first pushed across the mountains from Virginia, encountered similar difficulties.

The mountainous terrain made earning a living difficult, says Brown. There were no big farms and no cotton or tobacco plantations, and thus "no interest in the Civil War at all. The area became a hideout for deserters, renegades and marauding bands of Union and Confederate groups."

But late in the 19th century, mining, logging and railroad companies moved into the area, often uprooting families and devastating the land.

"They took the people off the land and transferred ownership to owners outside the region who raped the land," says Curtis Wood, a professor of history at Western Carolina and co-author of "From Ulster to Carolina: The Migration of the Scotch-Irish to Southwestern North Carolina." "Rivers were damaged, land wouldn't hold water and forest fires were incredible -- epic forest fires. All this is well-documented."

When the commercial interests had extracted what they could from the area, says Wood, "they pulled out, and the people they left behind were jobless."

In 1911, Congress passed the Weeks Act authorizing the U.S. government to purchase land and create national forests. Millions of acres were acquired and eventually entrusted to the U.S. Forest and Park services and, Wood notes, putting the land out of the reach of local people.

In the 1930s, the Tennessee Valley Authority was created to control floods, improve navigation and provide electrical power in the Southeast. While credited with improving conditions in the area -- including the elimination of malaria -- Wood points out that the TVA also forced many people off their land and flooded entire towns.

"There are very few regions where white people have been forcibly removed from their lands as they have been in southern Appalachia," he says. "The attitudes of Southern mountain people toward the government have been shaped by their experiences.... They've seen their land taken out of their control and put into big programs, leaving them with diminished resources and not much in return."

Government initiatives aimed at dealing with the poverty in the region have often been at "at cross-purposes," he says, and were managed by Washington bureaucracies. "They were never guided by people in the region, and the attitudes of Southern mountain people have been shaped by this, seeing their land taken out of their control and given to big programs."

Another touchy subject, he says, is taxes. Although the federal government is by far the biggest landowner in many western North Carolina counties, it pays no county taxes. It does pay the counties a fee, but it is well below what the land would bring on the open market.

A culture of distrust for government

One of the region's best known industries was the fruit of Appalachian ingenuity and an expression of the contempt some felt for the government.

Today, the streets of downtown Andrews are quiet, and many storefronts lie vacant as merchants move to a stretch of strip malls near the main highway.  

"Do you remember what they used to do in these mountains in the '20s and '30s?" area resident David Luther told USA Today. "Moonshine. Who do you think it was that used to lock up our grandfathers for making moonshine?"

The result, says Brown, is a culture thoroughly prepared to distrust the government. "One of the worst things you could hear around here," she says, "was a knock on the door and someone saying, 'I'm from Raleigh, and I'm here to help you.' "

An updated version of that scenario played itself out in August when the North Carolina Department of Transportation responded to a request from the Andrews town government to install a stoplight on a four-lane highway where it intersects with one of the town's busier streets. The request was prompted by accidents, near misses and at least one death at the site.

Instead, the DOT proposed a "directional channelized" system that would funnel drivers onto the four-lane in one direction, then loop them around and bring them back in the other direction where they could make a right turn that would deposit them on the opposite side of the four-lane from where they started.

According to the Andrews Journal, about 50 residents attended a public hearing on the DOT proposal in August, and most opposed it. One resident, Curtis Dockerty, asked DOT engineer Reuben Moore, "Does it matter to DOT what the majority want?"

"In a way," Moore said, "but I'm like a doctor. I tell you what's best for you."

The DOT later bowed to public opinion, however, and agreed to install a stoplight.

A cordial relationship with federal agents

Despite the region's history, visits to Andrews in the summer and fall of 2000 uncovered very little antipathy toward the federal task force. In fact, quite the opposite seemed to be true.

Most people seemed to agree with innkeepers Jo and John Paul Jones who said that the much-publicized incidents in Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho, made them wonder what to expect when federal agents came to stay with them.

"I thought I'd be intimidated," said Jo Jones, "but I wasn't. You think of the FBI, and you think of men in dark suits. But we've gotten notes, e-mails and Christmas cards from the ones who stayed with us. And several of the agents had Thanksgiving dinner with us. There were 16 of us, and it went on from 5 to midnight. They talked for hours about their homes and their families and their communities. It really was a wonderful situation."

She said they also proved to be good guests.

Andrews residents are traditionally wary of the federal government, but innkeeper Jo Jones says the federal agents who stayed with her turned out to be “wonderful, kind people."  

"They'd come back from being in the woods, and they'd take their boots and socks off on the back porch so they wouldn't track mud in," she said. "It was very considerate. I was amazed and pleased. They turned out to be wonderful, kind people."

Shopkeeper Beth Ann Elsberry said that federal agents visited her grandson's Cub Scout troop, showed the scouts their bulletproof vests and night-vision goggles, and gave them badges and key chains. She also said that two agents had cut wood for an elderly Andrews woman who repaid them with fried chicken.

Phil and Gayle Horton, who own an inn called the Cover House, said that agents staying with them drove two hours to Atlanta, Georgia, to visit Gayle when she had her baby. And when the Rev. Al Hood, then the minister at the First Baptist Church, asked the task force to stop flying its helicopters during Sunday night services, it did.

"I'll tell you the kind of people they were," said John Paul Jones. "We had my father living here with us, and Jo's mother, too. When my father died, we had to take his body to Florida, but we didn't have anyone to take care of Jo's mother. We were stuck. We had to go, and Jo's mother can take care of herself, but she's 86 and we wanted someone to look in on her.

"Well, one of the agents staying here said, 'Go ahead, we'll keep an eye on her while you're gone.' So we went and took care of everything down there, and came back a day earlier than we'd planned. One of the agents driving by saw our lights on and turned around and came up here to be sure everything was OK. That's the kind of people they were."

Whether this was spontaneous or the result of a campaign to change public perception was not clear, and calls to the FBI in Washington seeking comment were not returned.

The federal presence was not universally approved, however. Two office workers, both women, declined to be interviewed but volunteered unsubstantiated hearsay that put the federal agents in a different light.

"They say there were a lot of accidents (during the manhunt) that you didn't hear about," said one woman.

"I heard that a couple of guys shot themselves in the foot," said the other with a small smile.

A spokesman for the task force said, however, that "beyond the usual sprains, cuts and bruises" only one agent had been injured seriously enough to require evacuation from the forest, and that was for a sprained or broken ankle. As far as he knew, no shots had been fired whatsoever.

A final comment from the first woman was perhaps closer to the mark. "These are quiet people," she said, referring to the residents of Andrews. "They keep to themselves. They're independent. They don't want to be bothered."



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