Stories of the Land: Caring for People and Place

At 89 years old, Dr. Howard Norton climbs into his pickup truck and drives the rutted and narrow four-wheel drive road from his home near the intersection of Hwy 191 and Hwy 280 in Mills River to his cabin a few miles up the mountain.

His thick glasses get a little jostled on the adrenaline-inducing journey, but Norton knows the road’s twists and turns like the back of his hand. He makes this trip three or four times a week.  

The three-bedroom, pine log cabin has offered a peaceful refuge for the retired Mills River physician since the early 1970s. It houses an impressive collection of artifacts Norton has acquired over the years from his travels around the world.

“I’m a collector… or hoarder. Something like that,” Norton says with a chuckle as he shows off one of his 600 bolo ties, a silver piece engrained with the head of a moose that is as eclectic as Norton himself.

Norton’s cabin on the hillside lacks the noise of a telephone or television, just the sounds of lively conversation between family and friends mingled with chirping birds and rustling leaves.

“This whole area is important to me,” says Norton, who recently worked with Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC) to permanently protect 91 acres of land on Allen Gap adjacent to his cabin. “When I got out of the office in the afternoon and was tired, I could go up on the mountain and relax.”

Norton would see anywhere from 30 to 40 patients a day, serving as the area’s general practice physician for 37 years until his retirement in 1994. He delivered babies, performed minor surgeries, and alleviated the aches and pains of local residents from his cozy office a stone’s throw away from his home. If someone knocked on his door at 2 a.m., he was available and eager to help.

He continues to run into old patients around town. “They are still really appreciative of me,” says Norton.

“They don’t remember how horrible they felt when they saw me, they just remember me helping them feel better,” he adds, with a smile.

Norton’s love affair with Mills River sparked at a young age. He was born in Spartanburg, S.C. in 1927, and in 1934 his parents purchased a place in Lake Junaluska, N.C. as a summer escape.      

“Going to Junaluska, we discovered we could avoid the traffic of Asheville and get there a little quicker if we went Highway 191 to Enka and over,” says Norton.

“We travelled through Mills River. The corn was higher than a man’s head here. The farmhouses were neat. This was a different place. People took care of their homes and grew good crops. At 10 years old, I decided I wanted to settle here in one of the prettiest valleys in the mountains.”

The Road Back to the Mountains

While studying chemistry at Wofford College in Spartanburg, the draft board chairman approached Norton one Sunday after church. “He said, ‘I’ve got to send you your draft notice this week,’” Norton recalls. “I asked if he could wait until Friday and he agreed.”

Norton finished his class exams by Wednesday, joined the Navy on Thursday and received his draft notice that Friday as promised. He served in the Hospital Corps during WWII, where he got his first dose working in medicine. He was hooked. 

After the war, Norton returned to Wofford and changed his major to pre-med. He went on to medical school in Charleston and worked in Philadelphia and California for brief stints before saving enough money to return to his beloved mountains in western North Carolina with his teenage sweetheart.

“This area is special to me because I raised my kids here and this was my recreational area,” says Norton. “I did not want to see it developed like you see other developments around here. I like mountains. I like trees.”

A Conservation Corridor

Norton and his family arrived in Mills River in the late 1950s, when land was still cheap. But, after living in the area for more than 60 years, he has witnessed significant changes.

“Back in the 1880s, if they built a railway through a town it became a city, if they bypassed it, it remained a little village,” says Norton. “Same happened here with the five lane highway, an airport and an interstate. It all expanded quickly. Acres are now terribly expensive and they’re getting fewer and fewer.”

Norton and his children decided they did not want to ever see their land subdivided, but wanted CMLC to conserve Hoot Owl, a 177-acre tract that borders the property to the north, first.

“I told the Conservancy if they ever got Hoot Owl I’d talk with them about my land, because Hoot Owl continues the undeveloped land on Middle Ridge, with Seniard Creek on one side of the ridge and Hoot Owl on the other,” Norton says.

CMLC successfully acquired Hoot Owl last year and transferred the land to Pisgah National Forest this past January, connecting what had been a separate island to the main body of the National Forest, enhancing outdoor recreation opportunities, protecting our drinking water, and providing critical wildlife habitat. 

“That means there is a swath from the main Pisgah National Forest, through Middle Ridge, through Hoot Owl and me that will never be developed,” says Norton, proudly. “We are thankful and appreciative to the Conservancy for all they do and all they have done for us.”

Norton’s land is part of a chain of three conserved properties. CMLC worked with the Streadwick family to conserve Grey Heaven, the northernmost property that is home to the pure, clear headwaters of Sitton Creek.

Sitton Creek flows through Hoot Owl, through Norton’s property, and into the Mills River, providing drinking water for more than 100,000 households and safeguarding the federally-endangered Appalachian elktoe, a freshwater mussel, and the rare eastern hellbender salamander.

“The quality of the water we drink relies on the people who live on the land it flows through,” says CMLC Land Protection Director Tom Fanslow, who worked on these projects.

“There is a paradigm shift happening in Mills River with these landowners. They are the torchbearers for the generations to come. Dr. Norton and Streadwick, and the other landowners we have worked with in the Mills River area, are setting the standard for conservation for the rest of us to follow.” 

With Hoot Owl transferred to Pisgah National Forest, and Norton and Streadwick’s properties to the north and south conserved and remaining in private ownership, these lands together create a larger conservation corridor and will continue to be in their current natural forested state in perpetuity.

Norton has a sense of peace that his five children, six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren will continue to enjoy cookouts at the cabin and walks through the surrounding protected forest for generations to come.

“The area captured my heart when I was seven or eight years old,” says Norton. “And, it has kept it.” 

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