The Story: Overview Continued

Following the Civil War, the Mountain Region of North Carolina began to see many changes as urbanization, industrialization, and railroad construction spread throughout the country. Despite a very difficult decade, the population of Madison County increased 30 percent from 1860 to 1870, reaching 8,192 residents. People and goods were on the move and the county's rich soil, timber, and mineral deposits made it a popular destination for more than just tourists.

Tobacco Farmers 1930s
Tobacco 1930s - North Carolina Collection
Tobacco farmer pausing for water,
photograph by Bayard Wootten.

The 1881 completion of the Western North Carolina Railroad opened the region to profit making opportunities that had previously been out of reach. Introduced to the area in 1872, bright leaf tobacco proved its profitability even when grown in small quantities. For nearly a century most Madison County farmers had remained small and self-sufficient, growing crops and livestock for their own families' consumption and selling the occasional surplus as their main source of income. The completion of the railroad afforded these farmers an efficient method in which to transport their goods to market and bright leaf and burley tobacco both became popular cash crops. Larger-scale farmers were also investing in tobacco, hiring tenants to cultivate, harvest, and cure tobacco on their acreage. Prosperity brought new people to Madison County and the population continued to grow, increasing from 17,805 in 1890 to 20,132 by 1910.

Rail transport also opened the region to mining and lumber companies. Garnets, amethysts, gold, and less romantic but equally lucrative minerals were found in the hills and riverbeds of the mountains. Additionally, the great quantities of hardwood trees seemed almost inexhaustible when the rail lines reached the mountain forest. Despite the abundance of these natural resources, extensive logging and mining caused permanent changes to the mountain landscape. One devastating statistic reports that Madison County's forest shrank from almost 200,000 acres to less than 150,000 acres in the sixteen years between 1912 and 1928.