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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with J. D. Thomas and Lela Rigsby Thomas, November 14, 2000. Interview K-0507. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Development dramatizes emotional connections to family land

Lela loves the area, but avers that she would have moved years ago had she known the degree of the changes that development would bring to her area. One of the most significant changes is a loss of sentimental connection to the land, she believes, an observation that inspires J.D. to relate his family history and Lela to vent her frustration over how her family lost much of their land.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with J. D. Thomas and Lela Rigsby Thomas, November 14, 2000. Interview K-0507. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

So, did you ever think you'd see anything like this?
LELA RIGSBY THOMAS:
Never in my wildest dreams. Not like this.
J. D. THOMAS:
Not through here. In the lower lying areas, maybe. Down the river or maybe through Asheville, Hendersonville area.
LELA RIGSBY THOMAS:
But never through here. Not in my wildest dreams, ever.
J. D. THOMAS:
Not up here anymore. Here we set today with all the conveniences of home, Rob. Whatever they've got in the city, we've got it out here.
LELA RIGSBY THOMAS:
See, we thought we'd be out here where it'd be quiet and wouldn't have any more neighbors. Now they're moving in and building and all this hullabaloo. Coming in.
ROB AMBERG:
I'm curious. In '65 when you moved back up here—seen into the future and seen today, what do you think? Do you think you'd move back up here?
LELA RIGSBY THOMAS:
I think I would have moved. I really do.
ROB AMBERG:
Even though this road is here?
LELA RIGSBY THOMAS:
Yeah. I love it up here. I'd still come up here. I love the mountains. I was most definitely wanting to come back. I really would.
ROB AMBERG:
I've asked people that. Especially people who have moved in from the outside, like myself—if I would have moved here if I'd known that there was going to be an interstate coming through. And this doesn't affect me so much where I am now, but it gives you pause, because roads usually bring people.
LELA RIGSBY THOMAS:
I think I would have come back, though.
ROB AMBERG:
I know you haven't farmed in years. I know you have a garden and things like that, but you haven't farmed in many, many years. Do you sense that people think differently about their land now than they did back when you were growing up?
LELA RIGSBY THOMAS:
Oh, most definitely. They would hang onto it more. They didn't want to let go of the land back then.
ROB AMBERG:
Why would people have wanted to hang on to it, do you think?
LELA RIGSBY THOMAS:
For sentimental reasons, I'd say. Because it'd been in the family for years. Generation after generation. They want to hang on to it.
J. D. THOMAS:
Well, things were hard to come by back then. We can read our history books. Going back to one of my ancestors—William Henry Thomas—that settled down the eastern part of the state, had something like 6,000 acres down there. And when we look back at my grandmother Thomas, who was born in 1848, she was nearly a full-blooded Indian. Three quarters, something like that. We wonder what in the world happened, Rob. Did an Indian get in the woodpile somewhere down along the line or what? But no! You go back and search your history. William Henry Thomas at that time was a young boy, nineteen or twenty years old. He was well educated wherever he came from in 1730 when the Thomases—three of them—came over here. The federal government wanted to use him as a wagon-master or guide or what have you—like that—when they were moving the Indians to Oklahoma. Well, he took the job. He had a wagon, a team, a riding horse and a cow. And he went along with that. When they got to Oklahoma he did not want to bring the team and the wagon and the cow back. So he met with an old Indian of another tribe there in Oklahoma, a Chippewa or a Choctaw and he saw a sixteen-year-old Indian gal running around, and he traded a wagon a horse and a cow. And he—and the little girl's name was Two Step. She was full-blooded, what have you. They came back here and raised about twenty-one children. [Laughter] She died at the age of about 105, and he lived to about 115. People at that time held on to their lands. Well, we was down in Georgia. You had many of those plantation owners that still lived down there. Now Rob, those people are the happiest people in the world working those plantations. That is why we moved back here, because politics and other corruption got started in 1963, and it was a dangerous place to raise children in any time.
LELA RIGSBY THOMAS:
Let me say this. Rob, years ago my great-granddaddy owned all this property. At one time, they owned about 600 acres all around through here. When my grandmother and granddaddy died, then my mother and her two sisters didn't know how to handle things. So, people came through and more or less took the land from them.
ROB AMBERG:
That happened a lot, I think.
LELA RIGSBY THOMAS:
They took it. They just took it, because they didn't know how to handle things.
ROB AMBERG:
Did your family own the Babbit place?
LELA RIGSBY THOMAS:
No.
J. D. THOMAS:
At one point in time they did!
LELA RIGSBY THOMAS:
At one time they did, yeah.
J. D. THOMAS:
At one time they did.
LELA RIGSBY THOMAS:
A lot of this land, my family owned it at one time.
ROB AMBERG:
It's always seemed to me that people—especially old people—would hold onto land, because they knew they could make anything they needed to on the land. It was sentimental and it had been in the family for years, but also there was this idea that, "It might be worth so many dollars, but what it's really worth is that I can make a living off of here for a long time."
LELA RIGSBY THOMAS:
But they were easy going and they let people sweet talk them into letting this go and that go, and whatever. So they just got talked out of about four or five hundred acres of land.
ROB AMBERG:
Well, I would guess that this must have been a monumental undertaking for your grandmother, and your mother and her sisters. That would have been a really major job to try and maintain a place like this, hire the people that it would take to keep it going.
LELA RIGSBY THOMAS:
No, I never thought that all these neighbors would be up here that we have. Like Bruce coming in, buying that land from Kenneth, moving up there. And the ones up on the hill, and all this trailer court, and all these houses. It's just amazing. I wouldn't have ever thought about that. Never in a hundred years.
J. D. THOMAS:
For some reason, though, people like to move from one place to another. Why did you settle where you settle now? For peace of mind, and/or to get away. But now, we're on this side. And now when you interview these people on the other side, they're going to have maybe a different story to tell you. Because they have lost all their prize possessions, Rob. I feel for that, because there's some here that still got large acres of land. They can't get to it, it's landlocked. So they may have a different feeling, more so than what we would have.
ROB AMBERG:
That's right.
J. D. THOMAS:
The road itself. As far as me, I'm an old-timer. It would make no difference if the road come through or where it didn't come through, as far as me. I'm happy for our younger people and the traffic flow, and the advancing of times for it to be here.
ROB AMBERG:
So you're pleased that things are moving forward, then? That you like being able to get into Asheville quicker than usual?
LELA RIGSBY THOMAS:
Yeah. Right.
ROB AMBERG:
So you find yourself going out more than you did when you were young?
J. D. THOMAS:
We're trying to enjoy this little bit of retirement here.
LELA RIGSBY THOMAS:
Yeah, big change over the last thirty years, I'd say. Big change.